What Portland voters need to know before heading to the polls
The questions put to Portland voters on the Nov. 8 ballot cover everything from short-term rentals to “clean elections.” In total, there are 13 ballot questions. Yes, 13. It’s unique to have so many questions put to the voters at once, which could result in significant changes to the city of Portland for years to come.
Eight of the questions come from a local charter commission proposing major changes within the city, including replacing the current city manager system with an “executive mayor” and effectively removing the City Council from the school budget process.
The other five questions came from voter-initiated ballot referendum campaigns – many driven by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America – with the policy proposals mostly focused on housing, short-term rentals, and increasing the minimum wage across the city (including tipped workers). The DSA-backed proposals are billed as a way to build a “livable,” more affordable city. But they’ve already sparked sharp backlash from several groups, with companies like Uber and DoorDash spending tens of thousands of dollars in opposition.
And finally, there are several local office seats on the ballot. View a sample ballot here. Read on for more details about all of the Portland ballot questions.
What offices are up for grabs?
City council, school board and two water district trustees. Island residents will also appoint Casco Bay Lines directors, and Peaks Island residents will choose their own councilors.
Who is running in each race?
At-Large City Council Member
City Councilor Pious Ali is running for reelection. He is the first African-born Muslim American to be elected to a public office in Maine. Aqeel Mohialdeen, an Iraqi immigrant and vice chairman of the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center, and Richard Ward, a 27-year-old graduate of Rockland High School, are also running.
Two At-Large School Board Members
Ben Grant and Sarah Lentz are the only two candidates for the two at-large school board seats. The seats were vacated by previous members, and both candidates won the open seats during a special election this past June.
District 3 School Board Member
This race has several candidates, including school board member Adam Burk, who is running for reelection. He is a former Waynflete teacher who participated in the work group that developed the plan to return to school after COVID closures. Julianne Opperman, who has taught high school science for 40 years, and Samuel Rosenthal, a retired engineer, are also running.
District 3 City Council Member
Two candidates are running: Nathaniel Ferguson is a data analyst for a local nonprofit, and Regina Phillips is a social worker who has worked for the Westbrook School Department, the City of Portland’s homeless family shelter, Refugee Services Programs, and Head Start center.
Four Peaks Island Council Members
Peaks Island residents will need to write in candidates for their council members, as no candidates filed paperwork to run for the seats on this advisory committee.
Casco Bay Lines Directors
Patrick Flynn and Jennifer Lavanture are the two candidates for the director at-large for the Casco Bay Lines. The Cliff Island director has one candidate, David Crowley. And the Peaks Island director has two candidates, Twain Braden and Sharoan Cohen. All have three year terms.
Two Portland Water District Trustees
Software developer Frederick McCann is the only candidate to qualify for the ballot for a one-year term for the Portland water district trustee. Longtime incumbent Gary Libby is the only candidate for the five-year term.
What referendum questions appear on the ballot?
A slew of questions appear on the ballot — 13 in total, with five citizen initiatives and eight proposed charter changes put forward by the city’s commission. The citizen initiatives are lettered questions – A through E. And the numbered questions are the charter commission’s proposed changes. Here’s a breakdown.
What’s at stake in each of the citizen’s initiatives?
These referendum questions all require a “YES” or “NO” answer, asking voters if they would like to adopt the ordinance or not. Elected officials can’t change referendum ordinances for five years without going back to the voters.
Question A: “An Act to Regulate Short Term Rentals in Portland and Prohibit Corporate and Absentee Operation of Short Term Rental Properties” would ban corporate and non-local operation of short-term rentals in Portland. This includes rooms and units for rent on Airbnb and VRBO for up to 30 days in a row. If passed, it would tighten the regulations that already exist for these types of rentals, protect existing local short-term rental operators, ensure affordable and city-designated “workforce housing units” are not used as short-term rentals, and protect renters from eviction by landlords who want to convert their units into short-term rentals. This question was drafted by a group of local short-term rental owners.
Question B: Like Question A, Question B, or “An Act to Reduce the Number of Short Term Rentals in Portland,” is also aimed at short term rental units in the city. It seeks to restore about 350 housing units that are currently operating as short-term rentals by limiting short-term rentals to only those that are owner-occupied, tenant-occupied, or located in two-unit buildings occupied by the owner. This includes island properties. This question was drafted by the Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Question C: “An Act to Protect Tenants in Portland” would ensure that tenants receive 90-day notice for lease termination and/or rent increases. It limits the 5% rent increase to voluntary turnovers, and therefore discourages no-cause evictions. It also reduces tenant costs by restricting deposits to one-month’s rent, prohibiting application fees, and limiting the amount of standard annual rent increases that landlords can impose to 70% of the change in the consumer price index in the Greater Boston Metro Area. The increase currently allowed is 100%. It sets a $25,000 fee for condo conversions – changing a rental unit to a private, occupant-owned unit. This question was drafted by the Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Question D: “An Act to Eliminate the Sub-Minimum Wage, Increase Minimum Wages and Strengthen Protections for Workers” seeks to increase the minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2025. It also would eliminate the sub-minimum tipped credit wage, which is when employers pay tipped workers less than minimum wage when tips from the public help them reach the minimum wage. This question was drafted by the Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Question E: “An Act to Restrict Cruise Ships in Order to Reduce Congestion and Pollution” would limit the number of passengers who can get off cruise ships in Portland to 1,000 people a day, beginning in 2025. Most ships docking in Portland carry many more passengers than that and pay the city a fee for everyone aboard. According to cost estimates from the mayor’s office, this would be the most expensive of the initiatives, amounting to $3 million in lost revenue each year. This question was drafted by the Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but they have since withdrawn their support.
Which groups are behind each of the ballot questions?
Question A was organized by a group of short-term rental hosts and homeowners, who say that the goal is to keep the positive impacts of short-term rentals while making some changes. According to the Portland Press Herald, organizers of both short-term rental initiatives – Question A and Question B – each oppose the other.
Questions B through D were drafted by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, part of their “Livable Portland” campaign, which raised more than $9,000 in its latest filing. The group says that in total, the three initiatives – regulating short-term rentals, tenant protections, and the local minimum wage – would “make sure our city is affordable” for the working class. According to the DSA, the short-term rental question would bring at least 340 housing units back on to the market by next January. The group also says the tenant protections would lower rent hikes and “reduce the harsh impacts of displacement” by requiring longer eviction notices and eliminating application fees.
The national group “One Fair Wage” is joining the DSA in support of Question D. The groups say that the measure would make living in Portland more affordable for thousands of residents. That includes tipped workers, who would also see their minimum jump to $18 an hour over three years, in addition to tips. The groups say the increased wages would also apply to independent contractors, like Uber drivers and food delivery workers.
While the DSA originally pushed Question E, to restrict cruise ship visits, the chapter is now encouraging residents to vote “no” after it reached a compromise with the International Longshoreman’s Association and other unions.
Are any groups opposing these ballot questions?
The largest opposition campaign, ”Enough is Enough,” is led by former City Councilor Nick Mavodones, and is calling on voters to vote down every question on the ballot this fall. The group argues that, combined, the changes will lead to higher property taxes, hurt the city’s economy, and lead companies like Uber and DoorDash to flee the city. The campaign reported nearly $440,000 in donations in its latest filing, with large donations coming from Uber, DoorDash, and several real estate groups. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce is also encouraging members to donate to the “Enough is Enough” campaign.
Another ballot campaign, called “Restaurant Industry United,” is specifically fighting Question D. HospitalityMaine is helping to lead the campaign, which they say also includes restaurant owners and workers from across the city. While tipping would still be allowed if Question D passes, the campaign argues that eliminating the tip credit in the city and boosting restaurant workers’ minimum wage to $18 an hour would lead to far less tipping and upend the current system. The group has also received funding from Uber, DoorDash, and the National Restaurant Association.
The Portland Charter Commission is proposing eight additional ballot questions. Why was it formed?
The recommendations are the product of a yearslong charter commission process that voters approved in 2020. The primary issue that led to the charter commission was a push for a local Clean Elections public funding system for local races. Advocates gathered signatures to get the program on the local ballot but faced years of legal battles. The program will now be voted on as Question 3, which will create a clean election fund, prohibit corporate contributions to municipal candidates, and prohibit foreign contributions to ballot questions.
Approval of the charter commission also came amidst racial justice protests at the local and national level, with some groups arguing that the current city manager form of government is inherently racist, and said the current system has “no direct mechanism for accountability.”
What charter changes are being proposed?
Eight proposed changes to Portland’s charter will be on the ballot in November, and arguably the most consequential proposal is Question 2, which would move the city away from a city manager system of government to an “executive mayor,” who would nominate a new chief administrator and department heads. The mayor would also have the power to introduce legislation and veto the city budget and ordinances, though the council could still override those vetoes. The city council would increase from 9 to 12 seats, and it would have the power to censure, remove the mayor, or order a mayoral recall. It would also increase the number of seats on the school board, and would form a new joint committee of school board and council members to develop “non-binding budget guidance.”
Question 5 has also been the subject of much debate. The proposal would effectively eliminate the city council from the school budget process. Instead, the school board’s approved budget would head directly to a citywide referendum vote for approval.
Below are descriptions of all eight ballot questions:
Question 1: This question amends the Preamble to the city’s charter and adds a Land Acknowledgment recognizing that Portland ” is located in the unceded territory of the Aucocisco Band of the Wabanaki, which also includes the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot people,” while also discussing the harm of European colonizers.
Question 2: See above
Question 3: See above
Question 4: For municipal elections with multiple seats, this question would have the city use proportional ranked-choice voting,
Question 5: See above
Question 6: This would maintain a City Council ordinance creating a Peaks Island Council as an “advisory body” to the City Council.
Question 7: This question would create a new Civilian Police Review Board in place of a current police review subcommittee. The new board would review the police department’s internal investigation reports, and could also receive complaints directly from residents. The board could also create policy recommendations for city leaders.
Question 8: This policy would require the city council to create an ethics commission, which would recommend a code of ethics and review it periodically. The commission would also hear ethics complaints, and could recommend an “accountability officer” for the city.
Which groups are behind each of the Portland Charter Commission amendments? And who’s against them?
A group of former charter commissioners have formed a ballot question committee, called “Yes for Democracy”, advocating for voters to approve all eight changes to the city charter. The group says that the proposed governance changes would lead to a “greater diversity of perspectives,” and the new executive mayor, “who is responsible to the voters, will have a stronger incentive to express and fulfill a vision for the city.”
Another group of school board members, city councilors, and parents has formed a group, “Yes for Schools,” in support of Question 5, arguing that the school board “best understands the needs of our children and schools and the realities and constraints of the school budget”, and that under the new system, the school board would by “fully accountable to families, taxpayers, and the full Portland community.”
A group of several former Portland mayors has created a group called “Protect Portland’s Future” to push for “no” votes on Question 2 and Question 5. The former mayors say they’re concerned that the new executive mayor proposal would politicize city management without enough accountability. The group also says the school budget changes would hand a “blank check” to the school board, and also create legal questions that could cost taxpayers money.
Do we know how much the ballot questions could cost?
A recent memo from Interim City Manager Danielle West estimated that the passage of all 13 ballot questions could cost the city more than $6.5 million per year. The charter commission recommendations would cost around $1 million, while the five referendums would cost $5.5 million.
Much of the increase would come from Question E, to restrict cruise ship visits, which organizers are now asking residents to vote “no” on. The minimum wage proposal would cost more than $2 million, to pay for a new Department of Fair Labor Practices, and boost salaries for some city staff.
In an interview with Maine Public, a DSA representative pushed back on some of those numbers, noting that the memo didn’t include some potential revenue sources. And supporters of the charter commission recommendations said that their “best calculation estimates that the total cost [of the charter changes] would be closer to $500,000” instead.
Why are there so many ballot questions directly to voters?
Two years ago, Portland voters approved five of six referendum questions in the city, covering issues including rent control and minimum wage. In announcing its recent slate of referendum questions earlier this year, the Maine DSA acknowledged the success of that campaign and said that, “until we all have leaders who are willing to and able to fight for us, we, the people of Portland, will have to lead by example.” The group echoed that sentiment in an online resource for its Livable Portland campaign, saying that, “faced with a city hall that is unwilling or unable to make the changes we need, we’re putting forward three referenda that seek to make Portland livable.”
But several groups and current officials say that the continued reliance on ballot referendums to pass policy could have unfortunate consequences. In a Portland Press Herald article from earlier this year, Mayor Kate Snyder described the referendum process as “confusing” without enough collaboration. Councilor April Fournier told the newspaper that she feels the current council is accessible and transparent, which “leads me to think there is a disconnect and I hope that we can address that moving forward.” The head of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has also said that the system “is being abused” and the issues should go through the City Council.
Election day is Nov. 8, 2022. Polls are open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on election day. Early voting is now underway. Find your poll location here.