South Portland council: Ocean Street petition 'deceptive,' 'defective'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Sidestepping the opinions of the city clerk and corporation counsel, city councilors Monday night rejected recirculation of a citizen petition seeking the return of one-way traffic on part of Ocean Street.

Councilors voted 5-2, with Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen opposed, that petitioners may not have more time to collect 39 additional signatures. The petition had 905 valid signatures, but 944 signatures – or 5 percent of registered voters – are required by law. 

The petitioners have the option of collecting the signatures again, but would have to start from the beginning, City Clerk Emily Carrington said Tuesday morning. 

The petition was an effort to overturn a 4-2 vote by the council in March that changed a one-way block of Ocean Street between D and E streets, with angled parking, to two-way traffic with parallel parking on both sides.

It began circulating in early May and would likely have led to a referendum question on the November ballot. Now, unless the petition is revived, or there is a successful legal challenge, or the council changes its mind, traffic on Ocean Street will remain two-way.

Councilors are not normally involved in the validation of an initiative petition, the validity of which under the City Charter is up to the city clerk, Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett said.

Because of that, Monday’s vote was believed to be unprecedented; Blake said in nearly a decade on the council, he has never seen the council overrule a similar decision by a clerk.

Councilors also voted 5-2 against Blake’s opinion that a vote should not take place because the public had not been notified and the action was not on the agenda as an issue subject to a vote.

They further criticized Carrington’s determination, which was based on advice from Daggett, that petitioners – who missed a July 15 and turned in the signatures on July 18 – could recirculate the petition.

Carrington determined the petition was “insufficient” in a July 29 letter.

But Daggett said she and Carrington determined that allowing more time is acceptable because Maine laws pertaining to citizen petitions are to be “liberally construed,” and the City Charter “is silent on the issue of supplemental signatures and does not contain a filing deadline for citizen initiative petitions.” 

“The law of Maine is that the people’s power of initiative is used liberally, and I think that’s what the city clerk is going to do,” she told the council.

If the required number of signatures are collected, the council then has the opportunity to disregard the petition and “my legal advice,” Daggett said. “You are also completely free to decide whether you think the petition is not appropriate to send to the voters.”

Some councilors and several members of the public, most of whom have previously spoken in favor of the switch to two-way traffic, harshly criticized the judgment, Carrington and Daggett. 

“Did anybody ask you to inquire about a legal opinion about whether the council would have some form of obligation to allow the petition-gatherers to cure the defective instrument?” Councilor Claude Morgan asked Carrington, who was hired last October. 

“I know you’re green at this, and we love you in your job,” Morgan continued. However, he said the decision to consult the city attorney was outside her jurisdiction.

“As I see it, your job and duty is to certify whether it’s complete and valid, or whether it’s defective,” he said. “But you, on your own initiative, called up and asked for a legal opinion. … You are directing policy here that directly belongs to our legislators.”

Resident and attorney Natalie West, who has supported the two-way traffic arrangement, agreed with Morgan, and said Carrington overstepped her authority.

“Once the clerk has submitted that certification, the process is over, (and) no one has the authority to reopen that process and start circulating over again,” West said. “This is not a matter for discretion; it is a ministerial act, and that act is over.”

Offering time for petitioners to collect more signatures “is not required of us at all,” West said. “I think the petitioners have had ample time.”

“If we let this go back out, we are approving some incredibly shoddy petition work here,” Morgan added. “This is the shoddiest petition that I’m aware of, that I’ve ever seen.”

Morgan and others were also critical because a page of the petition was notarized, although it lacked the circulator’s signature. Citing this, Morgan called the petition not only “defective,” but “deceptive.”

Cohen and Blake acknowledged mistakes had been made on both sides, but said allowing more time for the collection of signatures and to decide as a legislative body whether to entertain the appeal would be the appropriate action. 

“We are not saying to the petitioners that you lose this right,” Blake said, “we’re just asking you to do this right.”

Cohen’s daughter April, who submitted the petitions July 18, said after the council made its decision that the conduct of some councilors and members of the public was “really unprofessional.”

“We as citizens put a petition together, we tried our hardest, you made your decision and that’s the way it is,” she said. 

“It’s embarrassing, as a city resident in South Portland, to listen to the way people have been talking about (Carrington and Daggett),” she said. “They were appointed by the council. You don’t have to agree with their opinion, but you have to respect it.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA. 

South Portland city councilors on Monday, Aug. 1, voted not to allow recirculation of a citizens petition seeking to return traffic on Ocean Street in Knightville to one way.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.