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Support, Opposition Mounting on Portland Ballot Questions

PORTLAND, Maine — With less than a month to go before Election Day, a coalition of housing and social justice groups is ramping up its effort to boost five referendum questions that will appear before voters in Portland on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Coalition members supporting the volunteer People First Portland agenda held a day of action at Congress Square Park on Saturday, with members speaking for each question.

Question A calls for increasing the city's minimum wage to $15 per hour. Dana Colihan with the Southern Maine Workers Center said Saturday that the pandemic has really highlighted the wage crisis workers have been facing.

"People resorted to unemployment in record levels," she said. "During this time, Maine and the nation found that many were making more from unemployment and the supplemental $600 than they were in their regular jobs."

Question A also envisions time-and-a-half pay for work performed in times of state or municipal emergency, such as COVID-19. 

Question B, which has the support of civil liberties advocates, would ban the use of facial recognition technology, following the lead of cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Boston. 

Question C would require stricter environmental standards for building projects receiving at least $50,000 in public funds, among other things. Projects would need to include solar-ready or living roofs.

Question D seeks to strengthen tenant protections, including a cap on rent increases to match the rate of inflation and incentives for landlords who provide 90 days notice when asking tenants to vacate.

Question E would place more restrictions on short-term rentals.

Coalition members include New England Regional Council of Carpenters; Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council; Portland Maine Green Party; the ACLU of Maine, which is endorsing question B; as well as Black P.O.W.E.R. and a number of other grassroots organizations and unions, although not all members are endorsing all of the questions.

But opposition to the People First Portland ballot effort is also growing.

"Right now it costs about $100 a year to get a permit from the city to host visitors in your home. Under this referendum, that would increase to $1,000 per year, and that's real money to a lot of people," says Willy Ritch, a public relations professional and former spokesperson for Rep. Chellie Pingree.

Ritch, who is also a short-term rental operator, is involved in an effort to oppose Question E, which he says is not only harmful to residents who need the income but unnecessary as the city is already regulating the short-term rentals.

Business owners and the Portland Area Chamber of Commerce are describing Question A as unrealistic and unsustainable for small-business owners, and a coalition opposed to questions C, D and E argue that the measures imposed would actually have a chilling effect on the creation of new housing in the city.

Correction: Dana Colihan was quoted in this story, not Callahan.