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Ethics panel says South Portland tried to influence vote, but will not investigate

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Ethics panel says South Portland tried to influence vote, but will not investigate

SOUTH PORTLAND — The state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices has decided not to investigate the use of city tax bills to distribute a campaign flier explaining the City Council's opposition to referendums that were on the November ballot.

But that isn't stopping the group that filed the charges against the city from claiming victory. 

In early October, the city included with its mailed tax bills the flier about Question 4, the second so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and Question 2, which would have sharply reduced the exercise on newer vehicles.

The flier highlighted the position of the City Council, which passed two separate resolutions opposing the initiatives. It also pointed residents to the city's Web site for more information about both initiatives.

TABOR Now filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission, claiming the city was trying to influence the outcome of the election and did not properly register as a ballot committee.

The city, however, argued it didn't have to register because it spent less than $5,000 on the mailing – a claim TABOR Now disputed.

The commission decided on Nov. 19 that South Portland did try to influence the outcome of the election and would have had to register as a ballot committee if it had spent more than $5,000 on the mailing. However, the commission determined the city, which claimed it only spent about $600 on fliers, did not spend close to the threshold amount and no further investigation was warranted.   

Attorney Dan Crocker, campaign manager for TABOR NOW, said he was encouraged that two of the group's three claims against the city were upheld. 

"The only reason South Portland escaped was because there was a determination their expenditure didn't exceed $5,000," Crocker said. "I take it as a victory, because the Ethics Commission ruled definitively that that requirement applies to municipalities and that South Portland tried to influence the voters."

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said he was pleased with the commission's ruling, while suggesting the TABOR Now campaign was out to make an example out of South Portland. Gailey said that about a half-dozen other communities also sent similar information to their residents, though only South Portland included it with property tax bills.

"I feel as though we were somewhat used as a case study for the whole state, because we were not the only community that did something like that," Gailey said. "Being a large community like we are, we ended up being a poster child for all municipalities in the state of Maine." 

Gailey said in the future the city will give careful consideration to any other efforts to either inform or influence the public vote. 

"Ultimately, (the mailing) was the most cost effective way to educate the majority of the citizens," Gailey said. "If it was an issue with our residents, we'll take a step back next time and see if there is another avenue." 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net