PORTLAND — Opponents of the successful campaign to have an elected mayor are complaining that proponents received nearly $47,000 in free advertising from The Portland Press Herald the week before the November election.
The gift was disclosed in a post-election finance report for Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1, a group including the Portland Regional Chamber and the League of Young Voters.
According to the Dec. 14 finance report, the Press Herald did not charge the chamber for several ads in the week leading up to the Nov. 2 vote on the City Charter amendment.
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman and Charter Commission member Tom Valleau, both of whom opposed the change, questioned the contribution on legal and ethical grounds.
“My concern, first and foremost, is the way this was done,” Leeman said. “If it was legal, then they circumvented the law, and that’s very unsettling.”
The report lists the Portland Regional Chamber as contributing more than $46,500 in advertising in the Press Herald to the campaign. But a notation says “The Portland Press Herald did not charge the Portland Regional Chamber for the ad space.”
“The whole idea of campaign finance reform is so there wouldn’t be undue influence of elections,” Leeman said of the newspaper’s in-kind donation. “Maybe it passes muster, but it doesn’t pass the straight-faced test.”
Leeman said the group that opposed the elected mayor raised $7,000, compared with more than $80,000 raised by proponents.
Valleau, a former city transportation director, said he is investigating whether the disclosure violates campaign finance law.
Chamber Chief Executive Officer W. Godfrey Wood said the chamber has a sponsorship agreement with The Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for a weekly quarter-page ad.
(Wood is the husband of Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster, which opposed the charter change in an Oct. 26 editorial.)
Wood said the chamber requested additional advertising space to promote the elected mayor position and the paper agreed, offering one free ad a day, at least one of which was a full page.
Wood said the disclaimer in the first newspaper ad indicated that it was paid for by the chamber, so he asked for a change. “I told them I didn’t want that because we weren’t paying for it,” he said.
Subsequent ads said they were authorized by the chamber, but did not indicate the newspaper donated the space.
Mayor Nick Mavodones said he is concerned the newspaper’s action sets a dangerous precedent, both for the paper’s decision to provide free ads to candidates and the amount of money involved in a local issue.
“I think it’s wrong and it’s shocking,” Mavodones said. “To think the newspaper may decide to give free advertising to a candidate of their choosing is something we’ve never had to deal with in this city.”
Wood said he is confident the PAC filing is legal, noting the group consulted with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices before and after the report was filed.
“If it turns out it was reported incorrectly, then we will change it,” Wood said.
Beyond the legality of the report, Valleau said the newspaper crossed an ethical line by not informing readers about the extent of its support for the elected mayor campaign.
“I think they had a conflict of interest,” he said. “They let the city of Portland down when they did this and didn’t disclose their interests.”
According to newspaper archives, the Press Herald published two editorials in support of an elected mayor, and its last news story ran on Oct. 25. The free ads began running the next day and continued through Election Day on Nov. 2.
When reached on Monday morning, Press Herald Executive Editor Scott Wasser said it was the first he had heard of the situation and referred questions about the ads to Michelle Lestger, vice president of advertising, who could not be reached for comment.
But Wasser defended the paper’s coverage, suggesting opponents were simply criticizing the coverage because their side lost the vote.
“That’s a shock; somebody who had the decision go against them thought the coverage was slanted,” he said. “Wow. That’s a revelation. I’ve never heard that before.”
Valleau said the newspaper did not run a letter he wrote opposing the elected mayor.
Wasser, who does not oversee the newspaper’s opinion pages, said the paper receives so many letters that discretion must be used in deciding which letters to print.
“I don’t want to say we pick and choose which ones run, but we certainly don’t run all of them,” he said. “We can’t.”
Randy Billings can be reached a 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org