Roughly a dozen Portland residents complained to the city that they were misled by deceptive signature-collecting efforts on behalf of a landlords’ group seeking to undo recent rent control laws passed by voters.
The city clerk’s office received several phone calls and eleven written complaints filed from Portland residents this year, according to a public records request by the Phoenix on March 8. Several of those said that signature collectors outright lied about or drastically misrepresented the effect of the ordinance, and in some cases refused to let citizens read ordinance language. Many requested that their signatures be removed from the petition.
The petition, circulated by Rental Housing Alliance, a landlord association and lobby group, was to put a proposed ordinance titled “An Act to Improve Tenant Protections” before voters in an upcoming election. If it passes, the referendum would remove language from a 2022 ordinance passed by voters which caps the amount landlords are allowed to raise rents after a tenant voluntarily moves out to five percent of the base rate, except in smaller buildings that the owner also lives in. The Rental Housing Alliance proposal would allow landlords to raise rents as much as they want following a voluntary turnover, and the rest of the ordinance would remain unchanged.
City Clerk Ashley Rand told Brit Vitalius, the president of the Rental Housing Alliance, formerly known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association, on Feb. 13 about the volume of complaints the city was receiving about those gathering signatures for the effort.
Rand emailed Vitalius that the city was receiving phone calls and emails “regarding petitioners this past weekend on Congress street, specifically near the post office and at the square being aggressive as they are trying to collect signatures for your Citizen Initiative petition.”
“Some of the complaints we have received are that they are aggressively flagging individuals down, following them for several feet as they are walking by and yelling to them until they acknowledge them,” Rand wrote. “These individuals have also stated that they feel the petitioners are giving out misinformation from what is truly in the proposed ordinance amendment. When they ask the petitioner for clarification, the petitioner becomes abrasive and being told that they were given a ‘script’ and they don’t have any other information to give them.”
Vitalius responded, “This behavior, if it occured [sic] as described, is not acceptable and we will make sure that it is addressed.”
Vitalius, who also chairs the organization’s Committee to Improve Rent Control, did not respond to multiple calls and emails from the Phoenix requesting comment.
Walter Lumpkins, one of those who complained to the city, said the petitioner who approached him, at an anti-racism rally in Congress Square on Feb. 10, told him the proposal would cap all rent increases at two percent.
“In spite of already knowing about the petition, I asked the petitioner what it would do, and he told me that it would cap all rent increases at two percent,” wrote Lumpkins, who also chairs the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee.
When pressed about the inaccuracy, Lumpkins complained that the petitioner responded he was “just following a script.”
“He admitted to being paid, and went on his way,” wrote Lumpkins, adding that he believed the signature-gatherer “collected many signatures at the rally.”
Another complainant, Christopher Moore, reported that petitioners did not provide the text of the proposed referendum on three separate occasions.
“I was refused by each of them, with each claiming they did not have the ordinance text in their possession,” wrote Moore, who formerly sat on the city’s rent board. “I recorded one of these petition circulators admitting that he did not have the ordinance language.”
On March 1, city election administrator Paul Riley replied to Moore that the city “had inspected the petitions circulated by Ezra Hickey when they were returned to us, and all their pages contain the language packet,” and so certified them.
Attempts to reach Hickey via his social media accounts were unsuccessful.
A third letter to the city was from a woman saying she was not given the full language of the proposal and after signing it, became “uncomfortable” with her support after doing more research on what the referendum entailed. A fourth reported that the petitioner who collected her signature misled her about the organization they represented.
“I was told they were a non-profit advocacy group for tenants, when they are in fact a landlord’s group,” wrote the fourth complainant, who preferred not to have her name printed when the Phoenix contacted her for a follow-up.
Rand, the city clerk, told complainants requesting to remove their signatures that state law prohibited that after petitions have already been filed. According to Rand’s interpretation, which cites both corporation counsel and state statute, a voter can look into withdrawing their signature from a petition before filing, and the clerk would refer that person to the circulator of the petition. No law requires the circulator to allow the signee to withdraw their name, but they could theoretically accommodate that person’s request.
“No statute expressly authorizes or forbids the withdrawal of a signature from a petition after filing,” the clerk’s response to several complaints reads. “The recommended rule is simple: if you signed it, you cannot withdraw your name after filing. The petition, as filed, is a public record. After filing of a petition, a signer’s signature should not be erased, deleted, stricken out, or otherwise obscured or altered, and no entry should be made indicating that the signature is withdrawn.”
The citizen’s initiative effort gathered the requisite number of signatures and could appear on the June 13 ballot if approved by city council, who could also adopt it outright or place a competing initiative on the ballot. The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed change on March 20.