The Portland Phoenix

Portland council begins designing clean elections system

A shot of City Hall in early March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A shot of City Hall in early March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A Portland City Council workshop on Monday night began the process of creating the city’s new clean elections program, likely modeling their program after the state program. Councilors are moving quickly to establish the program in time for this November election.

Approved by voters as one of eight Charter Commission recommendations last fall, the clean elections program is voluntary for candidates who want to participate, and would limit the amount of funding they can raise to a uniform, publicly financed number.

Lawyers from Perkins Thompson assisting the city in developing the ordinance said at the council meeting that they recommend a pilot program right away, since clean elections will need to be in place by the November election. The city could then update the system for other changes down the road. 

The lawyers recommended a “block grant” system, meaning qualifying candidates are given a lump sum all at the same time, similar to the state clean elections program. Other systems, such as one used in Seattle, opt for a “voucher” system, where voters are given “democracy vouchers” which they can give to their candidate of choice, and the candidate can turn the vouchers in for campaign funds.

As with nomination papers, a candidate would take out forms to run as a clean elections candidate on June 30. They submit them to the city for certification in August. Once certified, all clean elections candidates would receive the same amount of funding in early September. To qualify, candidates would need to raise a certain level of financial contributions to show they have public support, and would also need to participate in a voter education event, like a forum.

The Council will have a second workshop on March 27 and plan to approve the ordinance in April.

The workshop did not include much input from members of the public. Those who spoke did so in support of the ordinance, and included two members of the Charter Commission and a representative from the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the organization that proposed clean elections for Portland.

“There is quite a lot of latitude left to the council in what the program looks like, how much funding candidates receive, the method of qualifying, etc.,” Anna Kellar, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, told the Phoenix. “That was done on purpose so that the program can be improved over time without needing to reopen the charter each time.” 

Councilors used Monday’s workshop as a chance to ask clarifying questions. Several asked what a municipal candidate would do if they had already raised money or had money left over from previous campaigns and then decided to run as a clean elections candidate.

Brandon Mazer, one of the Perkins Thompson attorneys working to oversee the program (who also sits on the planning board) said that candidates in that scenario “don’t collect money and don’t spend money.”

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