Portland City Council pecks away at petition process, relaxes chicken rules

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PORTLAND — There was lots of clucking at Monday’s night City Council meeting, but not about a proposal to relax rules governing back-yard chickens.

Those changes, which reduced the distance required between chicken coops and neighboring buildings from 25 feet to 10 feet, passed unanimously and with little discussion.

Instead, councilors clashed over proposed changes to the petition process by which citizens can place a referendum, or a people’s veto, before voters.

The council considered allowing petitioners an extra 10 days to collect the 1,500 signatures needed to put a question on the ballot.

That proposal was struck down Monday night, with Councilors David Marshall, Kevin Donoghue and Jill Duson in the minority. But the council is expected to consider other changes to the process at its next meeting.

The issue was raised when the group known as Sensible Portland unsuccessfully sought a referendum that would deprioritize marijuana law enforcement. The group collected about 2,100 signatures, but fell 93 valid signatures short of the 1,500 required.

Councilor David Marshall, who proposed allowing a 10-day extension in such cases, wanted to change course Monday night to instead institute a rolling petition process, where petitioners could have their signatures verified on an ongoing basis. 

But city staff failed to prepare that amendment. An explanation of what happened was never offered, despite prodding from one councilor.

Councilor Edward Suslovic said he didn’t support either extension, since no other group besides Sustainable Portland has had a problem collecting signatures.

“We have not demonstrated there is a real problem that needs to be fixed,” he said. “They had ample time to collect those signatures and they chose to turn them in early.”

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. agreed with Suslovic, but said he would consider any future proposal Marshall may make.

The change was originally presented as a way to make the city’s petition process more like the state’s. But councilors, led by Duson, embarked on a tedious process to prove that was not tenable, since it would roughly double the number of signatures needed.

Marshall indicated he would bring the rolling petition process back when the council considers a change requested by City Councilor Cheryl Leeman that would eliminate the option of having a special election on citizen initiatives.

“It was not my intent to surprise any body with this,” he said, noting the rolling petition was discussed in a workshop.

Councilor John Anton said he is open to the possibility of a rolling petition process, but wants to ensure the public is fully notified. 

“Staff failed to prepare this amendment within the time frame established by the council, which think is a separate issue we need to address,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings