Opinion: Suggestions for making a more democratic Portland — and Maine

Maine voters sign a petition for a citizen initiative. | Beacon

In a column two weeks ago, I described how Portland Mayor Kate Snyder has launched an effort to make citizen-initiated referendums harder to initiate and less effective. 

In particular, she wants the Portland City Council to be able to repeal an initiative immediately upon passage, as Gov. Paul LePage was able to do when he blocked tipped workers from getting the minimum wage and refused to fully fund schools — after both were passed by the people. Current Portland law bars the council from doing this unilaterally for five years, giving the law time to work.

Obviously, Snyder’s proposal is a change that should not be advanced and will likely sink potentially positive changes to the citizen initiative process if included in a package for the voters to approve.

That said, some reforms could be helpful to Portland’s democracy, and likely every town in Maine that allows citizen initiatives (which most do, and all should). Changes that will create more transparency, enhance public input, and ensure voter intent is fully realized. Here are a few:

  1. Require that all citizen initiated referendums be voted on at a November election. In Portland we will be holding a landlord sponsored vote to destabilize rent control during a June election that will attract 10% of city voters. Contrast that to when rent control was enacted by 70% of Portland voters in November 2020. That should never be allowed to happen.
  2. Require greater frequency and transparency around financial disclosure. Big businesses opposing referendums in Portland have spent over $2 million dollars in the last two cycles, but the sources of those funds were mostly unavailable to the public until very late in the process. Every city should require bi-weekly reporting from Sept. 1 to Election Day.
  3. Explicitly eliminate the ability for a council to enact and amend an initiative before it is sent to the voters. Purportedly, Portland law allows the council to enact a citizen initiative after the signatures have been certified and then immediately amend/repeal it. Although a court would likely look skeptically at such a move, it would be good for the law to clarify that any provision of a council-enacted initiative cannot be amended until said provision has been in effect for at least three years.
  4. Explicitly protect citizens’ right to comment on the content of a measure and on the conduct of the petition campaign. The Supreme Court in 1951 made clear that the public must be allowed to comment on the policy of any initiative (“[the public hearing requires] that the City Council give opportunity for the arguments pro and con on the proposed question.”), but current practice in Portland has not reflected that requirement. Ensuring a full debate gives the public more opportunity to hear both sides from the outset and for the council to decide if the law should be enacted, sent to voters, and/or whether a competing measure should be added.
  5. Amend the competing measure rules to use ranked choice voting, so that one of the questions will receive a majority. Allowing for a competing measure to be placed on the ballot by the council almost guarantees an initiative will lose the majority support needed. However, at the state level, the question that gets a plurality goes to a final vote (if it gets a majority it wins). We should do the same in Portland and in every town, but use RCV to save on the expense of having a new election.
  6. Ensure that any initiative passed by the public also applies to city employees. In 2020, when the citizens voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Portland, with time and half for essential employees during declared emergencies, the city determined that the initiative would not apply to city employees. That meant someone working for the City could make below the minimum wage guaranteed to every other worker. That loophole should be closed.
  7. Repeal and replace chapter 9 article III (the citizen initiative ordinance) with a charter provision to the same effect. This is a little wonky, but basically it means that relevant Portland statute should be inscribed in our city constitution. This protects the rules and allows residents to initiate changes through an initiative should they so choose (currently the council must initiate changes). This also ensures that any future changes could only pass with 30% voter participation.

But, most importantly, the above ideas are just starting points as I have heard many others from interested constituents.

Instead of trying to ram through any changes, the Mayor’s or mine, the Council should create a citizen-driven commission to come up with the best ideas to build a compromise that can get majority support from the public. Our current mayor did this around equity. I did it when I was mayor around banning pesticides and rebuilding our schools. Our predecessor, Mayor Michael Brennan, did it around minimum wage.

Certainly voting rights, a core tenet of our democracy, rises to the level of these previous efforts. I know many who have been involved in using the citizen initiative process stand ready to assist in such an effort. Plus, if a commission is formed and given a year to make recommendations, the changes would be placed on the ballot in November of 2024, a presidential election, when Maine will have turnout above 70%. 

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