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Portland voters face 13 referendums next month. Here's why some residents are calling for change

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
Voters in line at Reiche Elementary School in Portland in Nov. 2020.

Next month, voters in Portland could find themselves spending extra time at the polls. That's because there are more than a dozen local referendum questions on the city ballot, ranging from changes to minimum wage and short-term rentals to the authority of Portland's mayor.

The new referendums come just two years after voters approved five other citizen initiatives. And that has some groups now arguing that the city should consider tightening its referendum rules.

Rachel Ohm, the city hall reporter for the Portland Press Herald, spoke with host Robbie Feinberg about why the 13 ballot questions — including eight submitted by the city's charter commission — are proving to be so divisive.

Feinberg: Rachel, how did we get to this point, with so many questions on the Portland ballot?

Ohm: The charter commission questions and the five citizen-initiated questions, they both kind of stem from a frustration on issues that are important to people. That they feel like maybe city government isn't doing enough to address currently — housing, regulations on short term rentals, the minimum wage, all issues that are really important to people right now — and that they feel like there's just not enough being done quickly enough.

I know we've certainly heard the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America speak about that frustration quite a bit, and specifically talking about City Hall. How have city officials, the mayor and other officials, responded to that criticism?

I think the response has been, 'We're working on it, and that making good policy takes time.' You know, I understand that perspective. But I think, from some of the people that are pushing these referendums, they do feel like it's not happening quickly enough. Not every item that is going to be voted on the referendums are things that the council has taken up recently. But there are some restrictions on cruise ships, and the minimum wage. The city council has been working on those things in committee. And I think, from their perspective, it's just, 'This takes time, we want to have the right stakeholders, and make sure we're talking to all the right people.'

In general, how would you describe how the city is really splitting on the issue of these referendums? What kind of politicians and officials and groups are you seeing on both sides of the issue of whether we want this many referendums?

There's one group in particular, they're called Enough is Enough. And their whole focus is, enough with the referendums. Like, 'We had a group of citizen initiated referendums that we saw in 2020, we don't need another round of referendums.'

Specifically, the anti-referendum folks, what do they see as the real consequences of this kind of increase in more referendum questions, versus going through the city council?

So there are certain questions that are more controversial than others. Question 2, the charter commission proposal to change the structure of city government, and give a lot broader powers to the mayor, that is one that has drawn a lot of concern. And changing the school budget process so that the city council no longer votes on the school budget is another one that has that has drawn some controversy.

I mean, some people might say, 'Oh, there's just a fear of change.' But I think there's also fear of, 'Yes, these are a lot of changes all happening at once. And we don't know what all the repercussions are.' I think also, with the last round of citizen-initiated referendums in 2020, it's still kind of early to say what all the impacts of those have been. For example, the Green New Deal building code. People say, 'Oh, it's making developers hesitant into adding to their costs. That's an example of building code policy that was passed through a citizens initiative. Maybe we should have taken more time, and done that through the council process. Do we really want to have these questions again, with a new batch of referendums?'

Do you think that the pushback to these ballot referendum questions that we are seeing this year could lead to some potential changes to the referendum process moving forward?

Yeah, I think it's something that's being discussed. And there's nothing formally that has come up to the city council, or anything like that. But I know the mayor has said that it's a priority of hers. She has a year left in office, one of her priorities is to look at the chapter of city code that includes the citizen referendum process and see if we need to make any changes there.

And I know one thing that a lot of people who are critical of the referendum process has said, is that the number of signatures to get on the ballot is too low. And we need to look at maybe making it more than 1,500. Additionally, there's a provision that says that the city council can't make changes to an ordinance that is passed by citizen referendum for five years. I think there have also been questions about, is that a good policy? Like, do we want to maybe change that? Should we make it easier for the City Council to make changes, if we end up with something that we don't really like, or that doesn't work?

Rachel Ohm is the city hall reporter for the Portland Press Herald, where she's been reporting on all of the local races for the upcoming election. Her stories have looked at several high-profile ballot questions, including to increase Portland's minimum wage, add tenant protections, and removemuch of the City Council's role from the school budget process.

You can also find more details about next month's elections, and more links to reporting on Portland's ballot questions, at Maine Public's Portland local voters guide.