New political group’s mission, unidentified backers raise questions

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A new nonprofit that claims it is a social welfare organization with a mission to unite and inform Portland residents has others suggesting it is really a political “dark-money” group attempting to subvert the work of the Charter Commission.

According to its Facebook page, Portland Together is “a platform for the members of our city to come together, learn what is happening around town, and unite as our incredible city grows.” The group filed for articles of incorporation last August, shortly after the newly minted Charter Commission began meeting.

Portland Together logo
Portland Together describes itself as “a platform for the members of our city to come together, learn what is happening around town, and unite as our incredible city grows.”

It has declined to reveal its members or donors but has purchased Facebook ads asking city residents to urge charter commissioners to retain the existing manager-council system of government.

That runs contrary to what is likely to be the most significant recommendation to come out of the commission, which would substantially reduce the power of the city manager and create an executive mayor who controls policy proposals and the municipal budget.

According to its articles of incorporation, Portland Together is a 501(c)(4) organization, a tax designation typically used by social welfare groups. The other commonly known type of nonprofit designation, the 501(c)(3), is generally used by religious, charitable, scientific or educational organizations. Unlike the 501(c)(3), donations to a 501(c)(4) are not tax-deductible.

A 501(c)(3) organization is prohibited from engaging in political campaign intervention activities. A 501(c)(4), however, may engage in political activities, as long as politics isn’t its primary activity.

Former Mayor Ethan Strimling, whose political groups supported various members of the Charter Commission, has claimed on Twitter that Portland Together is explicitly trying to influence the Charter Commission to reject proposals that would give the mayor more executive powers and reduce the scope of the city manager.

Portland Together Facebook ad
One of the Facebook ads purchased by Portland Together, which urges readers to email the Charter Commission to advocate for “protecting council-manager government in Portland.”

“My concerns are transparency,” Strimling said in an interview. “Who are they and where is the money coming from that they are spending to influence the Charter Commission? The agenda they appear to be pushing is very regressive and in line with conservative interests trying to preserve the status quo. The public has a right to know.”

Strimling, who publicly clashed in a City Hall power struggle with former City Manager Jon Jennings, said he doesn’t know much about the group, other than it has spent between $1,600 and $2,000 on Facebook ads.

“As a side note, or perhaps at the core, the fact they can hide is another reason we need disclosure requirements for anyone spending money in Portland trying to influence elected officials,” he said. 

The Facebook page regularly shares information about community events, including neighborhood meetings and high school sports, and posts links to City Council and Charter Commission meetings.

Portland Together has also had Charter Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who chairs the commission’s governance committee, record a 15-minute video for the Facebook page to promote and explain the work of the committee.

In an interview, O’Brien said he didn’t know much about the group and was asked to record the video about the work of the governance committee by Portland resident Willy Ritch,  founder of the digital marketing company Salt Public Affairs. Ritch was formerly a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and most recently ran the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, the group formed by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce to oppose efforts to replace Maine’s commercial electric utilities with a government-owned entity.

He said Ritch told him Portland Together is a public issues information group that is “generally politically neutral.”

Ritch did not respond to interview requests regarding Portland Together.

O’Brien, so far, is the only commissioner Portland Together has used on its Facebook page and he said he has not heard from the group again. 

The group’s incorporation was registered by attorney Andrew Wells of the Bernstein Shur law firm. According to the articles of incorporation, the Portland Together will “promote the common good and social welfare of the people of Portland” through education on policies; engage in lobbying and advocacy, and “conduct any other activities that may be necessary, useful, or desirable” to accomplish these goals.

Wells said he would contact officials of the group to see if they would be interviewed, but they did not respond by press time.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of State said Portland Together’s first annual report, which would include the names of its officials, is not due until June 1.

A 501(c)(4) corporation must also file annual financial reports with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. But a spokesperson for Maine Revenue Services said it is only in rare circumstances that nonprofits are subject to annual state filing requirements, and even when they are, those are confidential documents considered private taxpayer information.

University of Maine professor Mark Brewer, interim chair of the Political Science Department on the Orono campus, said 501(c)(4) groups are “incredibly” prevalent and active in American politics. While Super-PACs may get more headlines, he said 501(c)(4) groups are potentially more important and problematic, because they don’t have to disclose their donors. 

“When one hears about ‘dark money’ in American politics, the bulk of that dark money is flowing through 501(c)(4) groups,” Brewer said. “No limits on spending combined with no requirement for donor disclosure is a recipe for mischief.”