Despite almost unanimous opposition from the City Council, almost every citizen initiative referendum question on this year’s ballot received decisive voter support.
Three newly elected city councilors will help determine how the city implements those initiatives, which will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, enforce a ban on the use of facial recognition software, enact a Green New Deal for Portland, and cap annual rent increases.
Those three new councilors – Mark Dion, April Fournier, and Andrew Zarro – will replace Councilors Jill Duson, Kim Cook, and Justin Costa – all of whom opposed the measures – and will bring decidedly different opinions on them to the table.
Zarro, who will take over the District 4 seat Costa left when he decided to run as an at-large candidate, is a co-owner of the coffee shop Little Woodfords on Congress Street at the base of Munjoy Hill. He said while he was apprehensive to see all these items go to referendum, he understood people’s desire to do something to respond to council inaction.
“When an issue is ignored long enough, people get fed up,” Zarro said.
He said while the people’s vote is important, he said Portland has seen things go to referendum too often, and he is concerned it’s a tool that is being overused.
Zarro said the only referendum question he didn’t support was the cap on annual rent increases, because he wasn’t sure what the long-term impact might be. He said as a small business owner, he supported increasing the minimum wage and already pays his employees fair wages with benefits.
He said the margins by which the referendum questions passed are clear indications people are ready for change.
Zarro said he also understands why current councilors were apprehensive about these questions, but said the measures were clearly in response to the council’s lack of action.
“Now they’ve been voted on, and we have to do the work of making sure this is done right,” he said.
He said it is important to address them right away, and not bog the city’s residents down too much with constant conversations on the technicalities of the measures.
“The challenge is, because there was so much contention between those for and against, how do we work through this without holding onto that part?” Zarro said. “We have to get back to work and make sure the city is taken care of adequately. That just comes with having an open heart.”
Fournier, who defeated Costa for the at-large seat, said she supported all the referendum questions and was pleasantly surprised they all passed. She said being a candidate who was outspent in her own race and still won, she appreciates the victory for these questions, since they were at a huge spending disadvantage.
“There was a lot of money that went into opposing these measures across the board,” Fournier said.
She said it is now up to the council to make sure these initiatives all get put into place. She said even though there were a lot of people who opposed the measures as written, she believes there can be agreement that there are people in the city struggling and suffering, and the city should do more to help.
“We’re the new council coming in, and this is the first thing we have to address, to work on getting these to move forward,” she said. “There’s still quite a bit we don’t know yet, we have to meet and talk with the mayor and city manager and corporation counsel and the other councilors to find what others are thinking. There’s no magic wand that will make this all work out, so we’ll have to have a lot of discussions on ideas to make this work.”
Dion, who will replace Cook in District 5, did not respond to interview requests.