Portland council denies marijuana petitioners extra time to collect signatures

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PORTLAND — A petition effort aimed to make enforcement of marijuana laws the Portland Police Department’s lowest priority has been snuffed out — at least for now.

But proponents of an ordinance that would have codified marijuana laws as the city’s lowest enforcement priority said they are ready to try again.

The City Council on Monday rejected a proposal that would have allowed the marijuana advocacy group, Sensible Portland, additional time to collect signatures that would have placed the ordinance on the November ballot.

Sensible Portland collected 2,100 signatures and turned them in to the City Clerk’s office on July 15, a month ahead of schedule. But the group fell 93 signatures short of the 1,500 needed after the clerk culled the list for registered Portland voters.

Councilor David Marshall called the 35 percent rejection rate “unprecedented,” and asked the council to considered giving the group an additional 10 days to collect the signatures. 

“This group thought they had 10 (extra) days and plenty of signatures,” Marshall said.

Marshall, along with Sensible Portland members, noted that the city’s petition gathering process is not only at odds with the state, but also an exception within its own local laws.

The state allows petitioners extra time to gather signatures if they fall short. So does the city where a group is trying to change the City Charter, but not the code of ordinances.

“It’s actually easier to change the City Charter than it is the City Ordinance,” Marshall said. “That just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.”

Sensible Portland, which believes the city wastes time and money on marijuana enforcement, said they acted in good faith to comply with the existing rules.

Anthony Zeli, of Sensible Portland, said the grassroots effort relied completely on volunteers, most of whom had never before petitioned. That group worked closely with city staff on both the petition and the proposed ordinance, he said.

“This is definitely a complex process,” Zeli said. “It’s not easy for a group of citizens to go through.”

To deny the group additional time, some said, would be to disenfranchise the 1,000 Portland residents who supported putting the question on the ballot.

“Those signatures are not just ink on paper,” resident Jason Shedlock said. “They represent voters across the city who have engaged, to one extent or another, in the civic process. Whether or not one agrees with the underlying goal, we as a city should be fostering that engagement any chance we can.”

But resident Robert Haines said the issue had nothing to do with civic engagement.

“This is about sour grapes,” Haines said. “You don’t change a process once it has started to bail out a group that didn’t do their homework.”

The majority of councilors agreed that it was unfair to change the rules midstream to help a specific petition drive.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she served on the council when the ordinance was changed to prohibit additional time for ordinance petitioners. That action occurred because the city lowered the signature threshold, she said.

“The state … threshold is much higher with regard to how many signatures you have to have, which is why they allow you that extra 10 days,” Leeman said.

But councilors were open to a comprehensive review of the petition process as it compares to state law, directing staff to collect information for an early October workshop.

While it takes 1,500 signatures to place a citizen-initiated ordinance on the ballot, the state standard for changing Portland’s charter is upwards of 4,500 signatures.

But Leeman cautioned that the group’s effort to align state and local laws might backfire.

“I think you will find it will make it more difficult,” she said.

After the meeting, Sensible Portland immediately began collecting more signatures for a new petition effort.

Zeli said the group was not giving up on the effort and is eying the June 2012 or November 2012 ballot.

“It’s a setback for for this petition drive,” he said, “but it’s certainly not the end of the issue.”

Randy Billings can br reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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Debt refinancing may save Portland $1.3M; Council delays action on bulky waste, wind turbines

PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday authorized the refinancing of nearly $25 million worth of debt in an effort to save more than a $1 million in interest payments over the next decade.

The council also postponed action on a proposal to launch a new bulky waste program and referred to a subcommittee an ordinance governing wind turbines.

Finance Director Ellen Sanborn said the city was looking to refinance $24.9 million in bonds in order to take advantage of historically low interest rates.

The bonds were originally issued with an interest rate of between 4 and 5 percent.

But Sanborn said the city could lower that rate to about 2.5 percent, which is estimated to save the city $1.3 million over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, City Manager Mark Rees said the city’s two credit rating agencies re-affirmed the city’s credit rating, which determines the interest rate on city bonds.

Rees said Moody’s will continue give Portland an AA1 rating, while Standard & Poor’s will keep the city at a AA rating, citing its diverse tax base and prudent financial policies.

Bulky waste

Councilors postponed until their next meeting a proposal to restore curb-side bulky waste pick-up.

The action came at the request of Councilor John Anton, who leads the Solid Waste Task Force, which will present a full report of recommendations at the next council meeting.

Currently, there is no curbside bulky waste pick-up. Residents must take their bulk waste to the Riverside Recycling Center, 910 Riverside St.

The proposed program would allow residents to buy tags to inform city crews to pick up curbside bulky waste.

The tags would be sold for $7.50 each through the city’s Public Services Division at 55 Portland St. They would also be available online.

The program would be rolled out in two phases.

The first phase would allow bulky waste under 30 pounds that won’t fit in a trash bag to be collected Sept. 8 through Nov. 18. Such waste would require one tag.

The second phase would begin in April 2012 and include the pick-up of bulky waste up to 100 pounds, which would require two tags.

In other business, the council referred a proposed ordinance governing the placement of wind turbines to the council’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee.

The group will review the ordinance and issue a recommendation to the council.

— Randy Billings