Portland Charter Commission considers ending City Council’s school budget oversight

Subcommittee OKs universal resident voting

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A proposal that would effectively remove the City Council from the Portland Public Schools budget process is gaining ground in the Charter Commission.

Marcques Houston, who chairs the commission’s education committee, introduced a proposal on behalf of the School Board that would make approval of the School Department budget the responsibility of only the board and then voters via referendum.

The City Council now has the final say on the school budget before it goes out to referendum. Portland voters have historically supported the budget overwhelmingly.

Marcques Houston
Marcques Houston chairs the Portland Charter Commission education committee.

The process has occasionally led to conflict between the two elected bodies.

Last year, for example, the City Council rejected the final School Board proposal and asked for additional spending cuts in the $125.2 million budget. After public pushback, however, councilors sent the full budget out to voters.

Houston’s proposal calls for a more involved joint finance committee of the School Board and City Council that would develop annual priorities for the city and schools. It would also encapsulate another committee proposal, to have the superintendent of schools directly involved with the city manager in creating the city’s annual Capital Improvement Plan.

It would also give the School Board authority to propose school construction or renovation bond questions, and change how School Board vacancies are filled in the rare circumstance when a special election occurs to fill a vacated seat in the final months of a term. 

In that case, candidates who win the special election would not have to seek reelection in November; they would complete the vacated term and then begin a standard three-year term.

Three vacant School Board seats will be filled in a special election this June. Two of the seats are for terms that expire in November, so the candidates who win those elections will have to take out nomination papers, qualify for the ballot, and be reelected in November if they want to remain on the board.

Houston called the current requirement to conduct a new campaign within a few months of being elected “a heavy burden and duplicative.” His proposal would not apply in cases such as this year’s special election for the District 5 School Board seat, which has two years remaining in its term. 

Houston said giving the School Board the final say on the school budget and authority to create bond questions would put the board on more equal footing with the City Council. In both cases, the council would still have to vote to send the questions to referendum, but they would not be able to amend the questions.

He said the council would still have input creating the school budget, as part of the joint committee made up of four members from each body. That committee would meet for 30 days, and Houston said the hope is all the tinkering could be done before the School Board takes over and finalizes the budget for voters.

He said School Board members have shared their concern with the education committee that clarity is needed to end “confusion over who does what.”

The proposal to give the School Board authority to send bond questions for school renovation and construction projects to voters is another attempt to give that body equal footing with the council, he said.

Houston’s proposals are slated for a public hearing and vote on March 2.

Additionally, the full commission will take up a proposal that has the unanimous backing of its elections committee regarding universal resident voting, which is also referred to as noncitizen voting.

The proposal, from Commissioner Patricia Washburn, would empower all Portland residents of legal voting age to vote in municipal elections and on local ballot questions. They would not be allowed to vote in state or federal elections.

“We have people who live in the city and send their kids to our school and pay taxes here and who do not have the opportunity to vote,” Washburn said. “That’s a fundamental principle of this country.”

She said she has received feedback both for and against her proposal, with some of the opposition claiming that giving immigrants the ability to vote in city elections would swing results.

Washburn said her intention of this is not to give one party more power – she doesn’t think “the immigrant vote” is something that exists – and that individuals will vote as they see fit. She said the goal is to give people who live in Portland and pay taxes in the city a say in how their city is run.

“I think it’s a matter of justice,” she said. “That’s really what this comes to.”

Washburn said there has been discussion about a separate elections commission being formed to handle recommendations coming from the Charter Commission, and if her proposal is approved by the full commission and then voters, it would likely be up to an elections commission to determine the timeline for implementation.

Whether her proposal would also allow someone who is not a citizen to seek elected office is murky. Washburn said her understanding is that the city allows any registered voter to run for office.

“I would expect it would be difficult (for a noncitizen voter to run for office),” she said. “But I think it would be technically possible and kind of awesome.”

Ryan Lizanecz
Portland Charter Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz chairs the panel’s departments committee.

Commissioners propose ethics code, panel

The Portland Charter Commission’s departments committee will likely recommend creating a city code of ethics and a commission to monitor ethics violations by elected officials and city employees.

Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz, who chairs the committee, on Monday said both he and Commissioner Zach Barowitz had been working on similar proposals independently, so the plan would be to combine them.

Lizanecz said cities and towns around the country, including several in Maine, have their own code of ethics and usually an oversight board associated with that, but Portland does not.

The code of ethics would be adopted by the City Council and would not be written by the Charter Commission.

The ethics commission would consist of seven residents appointed by the council, who would meet as needed but at least every three months, or at the request of at least two city councilors, any city employee, official, or resident. It would be an advisory board and offer nonbinding opinions about potential ethics violations.

Lizanecz said one of the most basic things a code of ethics does is define conflicts of interest and when they must be disclosed. Officials or employees found to violate the code of ethics would face reprimand, removal from office, or having their contract with the city terminated.

He said his hope is that the ethics commission would also be able to interpret the City Charter when needed. A similar proposal from the governance committee would have members of this Charter Commission remain on call to provide charter guidance.

The ethics commission would be an independent body and report its activity to the City Council at least once a year.

In addition to holding officials accountable when it comes to conflicts of interest, Lizanecz said the proposal would increase transparency in city government, build public trust, discourage corruption in government, protect whistleblowers, and would not come at any cost to the city.

The committee will discuss the issue again at its next meeting, and possibly vote to send it to the full Charter Commission for review.

Maine municipalities as small as Bristol and as large as Bangor have similar bodies. Lizanecz said Provincetown and Bourne, Massachusetts, and Milton, Vermont, have ethics commissions with responsibility for charter interpretation.

There still is some reconciliation required between the Lizanecz and Barowitz proposals, including who would review ethics complaints. Lizanecz has complaints going to the ethics commission itself, while Barowitz would have complaints go to the city attorney or ombudsman if that position is created.

— Colin Ellis