Portland City Council to discuss options for referendum ballot remedies

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PORTLAND — The lack of a 2011 referendum could allow two citizen initiatives to move onto the Nov. 7 ballot after it was ruled they would not.

City councilors on Monday, Aug. 21, will take initial steps to produce the outcome supporters of zoning reforms and rent stabilization expected when they submitted signatures to the city cerk’s office Aug. 7.

Those expectations were dashed later that day when it was determined the City Charter requires 90 days between a public hearing and referendum vote. Public hearings for the citizen initiatives are scheduled for Sept. 6.

“City staff had been proceeding with the understanding that these two proposals would be received in time to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot, which is exactly what was shared with the petitioners,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in an Aug. 10 press release.

In the release, Grondin outlined two remedies that left referendum supporters wary.

The first solution would essentially void the 90-day period between a public hearing and referendum election. This could be done because the council’s 2011 change from a 60-day to 90-day period was supposed to be subject to a referendum vote of its own.

Grondin said the error was discovered when the city corporation counsel and city clerk’s office looked for ways to get the citizen initiatives to the ballot. Both initiative petitions have been certified for the ballot with signatures from 1,500 city voters.

A second option is for councilors to enact both measures, which is already a choice that could be made following the scheduled public hearing on Sept. 6. In this case, Grondin said the proposed ordinances could be amended with delayed effective dates.

Once approved by councilors, the questions would be put on the ballot as “advisory questions” for voters, and repealed if rejected by voters.

Eva Polin, a member of Give Neighborhoods a Voice, which supports the zoning reforms, criticized city officials Aug. 10 for excluding the groups advocating the ordinances from discussions about moving forward.

“It is difficult for citizens to have confidence that a valid and legal solution is being proposed when it hinges on the city claiming that the referendum provisions that the City Council has previously enacted are unconstitutional,” Polin said in a press release.

Polin said the error by the clerk’s office leading ordinance supporters to believe the petitions could be on the Nov. 7 ballot is part of a larger pattern at City Hall.

“Citizens have repeatedly experienced notice errors at both the council and Planning Board levels. The Planning Board staff gave incorrect and thus inadequate notice for workshops and only begrudgingly made a half-hearted attempt to remedy the situation after sustained complaints by residents to the City Council,” she said.

On Tuesday, Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he is comfortable with city efforts to rectify the mistakes, and expects to learn more on Aug. 21.

“I think what people will hear on Monday is the legal basis to go forward. It is that opinion I am relying on as we go forward,” he said.

Frank and Jack O’Brien, of Fair Rent Portland, both said they are concerned passage of the proposed ordinances at this point will lead to court challenges. But O’Brien said Fair Rent Portland is proceeding as though its ordinance will be on the ballot in November.

“It would be the worst sort of Pyrrhic victory to get on the ballot and then get sued,” he said Aug. 12.

Thibodeau said any outcome could be challenged.

“What I hope to hear Monday is a fuller explanation to the public and to get the public comfortable with the options before us,” he said.

Fair Rent Portland submitted more than 2,500 signatures for a proposed ordinance to cap increases on rents in occupied apartments in buildings with six or more units to the increases in the local Consumer Price Index and property taxes.

The ordinance would also establish a tenant-landlord board to administer appeals on proposed rent increases. Buildings constructed after Jan. 1 would be exempt from the regulations, as are public and owner-occupied housing.

The zoning reforms proposed by Give Neighborhoods a Voice would block proposed zoning changes if 25 percent of registered voters living within 500 feet of the area in question file written objections before a council vote on the new zoning.

Those objections could be overridden if 51 percent of registered voters living within 1,000 feet of the area in question file written support of the change.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.