PORTLAND — Supporters of Question 2, the referendum that would change zoning on Portland Co. property at 58 Fore St., are questioning whether a local magazine broke the law when it raised money to publish an edition opposed to the measure.
Peter Macomber, president of Save the Soul of Portland, on Monday sent a letter to City Clerk Katherine Jones and Jonathan Wayne, director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, asking them to look into possible ethics violations by Maine Media Collective and Portland’s Future, two political action committees formed to oppose the referendum.
Save the Soul of Portland members wrote the referendum question that will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. Maine Media Collective was formed by the publishers of local magazines, including Old Port magazine.
The referendum question could prevent future development in a section of Portland Co. land from rising above Fore Street, would set up a task force to assess city views, and require developers seeking zoning changes to present more details of future land use.
Portland’s Future has said the referendum is too broad and would harm future development throughout the city.
The latest edition of Old Port was dedicated to opposing the referendum question, and came after the company sought advertising and sponsorships of at least $1,000 for an expanded print run of 28,000, according to an email from company advertising account manager Karen Bowe.
“What makes this situation unusual – and we believe a potential violation of campaign finance reporting requirements – is the solicitation to the recipients of the email for funds to sponsor and pay for the cost of this ‘unprecedented’ advocacy campaign,” Macomber said.
Old Port Publisher Kevin Thomas on Monday said the company went beyond what is legally required by forming the PAC, and its only lapse was filing a spending report one day late.
“Maine Media Collective sought guidance from our attorney, Matt Manahan at Pierce Atwood, and the Maine Ethics Commission before going to press,” Thomas said in an email. “It has been our intention to be in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.”
Thomas added the company would respond to the ethics complaint in full after it is reviewed by their attorney.
Macomber objected to the company asking businesses to help fund the edition, even though he said he understood why the publishers are exempt from campaign disclosure laws.
“We don’t believe the exemption anticipated a media organization raising money from individuals and businesses for the sole and specific purpose of influencing the outcome of an election,” Macomber said.
Macomber called the edition misleading because it lacks a disclaimer that money was raised by a PAC and because authors of an article opposing Question 2 did not attempt to include Save the Soul of Portland.
“Only the viewpoint of the opponents – who paid to underwrite the extra printing and distribution of the special issue – are represented,” Macomber said.
Campaign spending reports filed with Jones show Portland’s Future gave Maine Media Collective $9,000, but listed it as an unpaid debt, while Maine Media Collective listed it as a contribution. Macomber has also asked for clarification on how much money was given and what the money was used for beyond an advertisement on the back page of the magazine.
The complaint also alleges at least two advertisers pulled ads when they learned of the editorial intent of the latest edition, and Macomber wondered why not all advertisers were notified in advance of the special edition.
“We are far more concerned with the potential violations surrounding the political involvement of a corporation that is raising and spending money to defeat a citizen-initiated referendum without disclosing to the public the extent of its involvement,” Macomber said.
The latest edition of Old Port magazine takes a stance against Portland Question 2, but in a manner that has led to claims of ethics violations.