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Portland Charter Commission’s initial report calls for noncitizen voting, clean elections and a strong mayor

If passed as currently written, a recently submitted draft proposal of reforms to Portland’s city charter features election reforms, including plans to allow non-citizen residents to vote and make the mayor the city’s chief executive.

A review of Portland’s charter was approved by voters during a July 14, 2020 election. It authorized the creation of a charter commission, which began with the city council appointing three members on August 10, 2020. Voters appointed an additional eight members to the commission during an election held on June 8, 2021.

The commission’s preliminary report was submitted to the city council during its May 16 meeting.

Among its proposed charter revisions is the creation of a civilian police review board. Portland currently has a Police Citizen’s Review Subcommittee, a board of appointed volunteers that reviews investigations of complaints about police, which serves as its chief means of overseeing law enforcement.

“Because policing is a core function of municipal government, the Committee recommends that citizen oversight should be in the Charter to elevate the status of the existing boarding order to mitigate the potential for harm and to build broader public trust between civilians and police,” wrote the commission, which also noted it didn’t think the charter was the appropriate place to examine police procedure or the police budget.

Because of the city’s “excellent Police department and a low crime rate,” the charter commission decided to retain its system of using a review board to provide oversight but add some enhancements.

Some of these include having the review board deliver reports and recommendations to the city council and allowing complaints about police misconduct to be brought directly to the board, which would be able to issue advisory opinions on citizens’ appeals. 

In the event of a vacancy on either the city council or the Portland school board that occurs within six months of a regularly scheduled election, the charter commission also suggested allowing the school board and city council to appoint a qualified person from the same district to fill an empty position. If a vacancy occurs more than six months from the next regularly scheduled election, the city council can call a special election to fill the seat.

This proposed change, the commission notes, was requested by the school board. The commission also noted the proposal does not go as far as the school board initially requested. 

Under the current city charter, vacancies at either the city council or school board declared prior to the next regular election are filled by a special election that takes place on the same day as the next scheduled state or municipal election that is at least 127 days after the vacancy is declared.

Other education-related proposed changes to the charter include the creation of a joint committee to guide the school budget process, comprised equally of school board members and city council members, and an updated capital improvement program planning process that would include the superintendent of the city’s public schools.

The charter commission also submitted several proposed changes to the way the city’s elections are run. 

One change would allow proportional ranked-choice voting, which allows for more than one winner, to be used in elections with multiple seats. Winners will be determined by determining vote thresholds, equal to the number of seats to be filled, plus one. The city council would have to create an ordinance establishing a proportional ranked-choice voting system.

Another proposal within the draft report calls for universal resident voting, which would allow “voting by all Portland residents, whether or not U.S. citizens, in municipal elections.”

The commission wrote they believe “extending the right to vote in all municipal elections to all Portland residents is a matter of fundamental fairness.” The report also notes concerns about whether the proposal is a “lawful exercise of municipal home rule charter authority where State law establishes voter qualifications” and whether it could lead to unintended consequences for immigrants who register and vote. 

The proposed changes include stipulations about registration forms that must be separate from those used for state and local elections and which would not qualify voters to participate in state and federal elections. The registration forms would also include a notice alerting non-citizens that information provided might be obtained by immigration authorities.

Another proposal included in the preliminary report would create a voluntary public financing program to facilitate so-called clean elections. The preliminary report notes the proposal is not for a specific type of public financing program, but requires that some sort of public funding for elections exists. The city council would issue an ordinance with specifics on the program.

The commission’s proposal also stresses the importance of participation in the clean elections program being voluntary, which it notes is essential to its constitutionality. The commission further stipulates the program only be available to candidates who demonstrate public support, though it does not say how this should be gauged, and that candidates who take public financing agree to only use funds provided by the program, with a limited amount of private funds allowable as stipulated by a to-be-drafted ordinance.

Unused funding from the program would be returned after 100 days. To participate in the program, candidates would also have to participate in a city-sponsored forum or event designed to promote voter engagement. The commission estimates the cost of implementing a clean elections program, which would be run by the city clerk’s office, would cost approximately $288,000 in fiscal year 2023-2024.

The commission also proposed increasing the number of district city councilors from five to nine. With the council’s three at-large seats, this would increase its size to 12, plus the mayor. The proposal would also change school board seats, changing the three at-large members to district seats. 

The commission’s preliminary report also includes a proposed governance model that would strengthen the power of Portland’s mayor. The proposal notes, if adopted, most of the government decision-making power in Portland would be centered in the hands of the mayor and city councilors. The commission makes these changes because these positions are directly accountable to voters.

“At the root of the reforms proposed here is a desire to establish effective and transparent citywide policy leadership that is directly accountable to voters,” the commission writes in the proposal.

The changes made to the mayor’s role would turn the position into the city’s chief executive, but, unlike earlier proposals, would not grant the mayor all the traditional powers of a strong mayor system. Under the proposal, the mayor would propose the city budget, would have the power to veto the budget, and would have executive leadership over the city. The city council would also have the power to amend the budget and override the mayoral veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

The commission’s proposal is slightly at odds with its proposals related to redistricting, as the mayor would no longer be a city council member. The mayor would still preside over city council meetings and set agendas but would not be able to vote.

“The decision to keep the mayor involved with council meetings is rooted in a desire to ensure that the mayor is fully informed of all council policy decisions and the intent behind those decisions. The decision to deny the mayor a council seat and vote was rooted in a desire to limit the mayor’s power,” the commission wrote in its proposal.

Under the proposal, the mayor also would not be able to veto any policy or legislative decisions made by the city council or to unilaterally hire or fire employees. The commission noted it decided to withhold this power “to prevent the mayor from being as strong as mayors in cities like Westbrook, Maine and Burlington, Vermont, both of which have traditional strong-mayor systems.”

Additionally, the mayor would have some duties related to economic development and be expected to champion the development of large-scale projects before the city council “to reduce the frequency and magnitude of last-minute changes or demands on the project that might threaten its viability.”

The city manager would also become the city’s chief operating officer under the proposal and would contribute “expertise and management” to the city’s day-to-day activities. The city manager would report to the mayor and would supervise department heads.

The proposal would also create an executive committee to include the mayor and two councilors elected by the city council. Per the report, the executive committee “is intended to solve concerns around cronyism, patronage, and the spoils system.”

Under the proposal, the executive committee’s primary responsibility would be to nominate city government officials, including department heads, the city clerk, the corporation counsel, and the city’s chief operating officer. Currently, the city council appoints Portland’s city manager, city clerk, and the corporation counsel. Only the city manager appoints department heads, which must be confirmed by a city council vote.

The executive committee would also “have the role of legitimizing the mayor’s power of presiding over council meetings” by including leadership elected by the city council.

Other proposals in the report include a resolution that would codify the Peaks Island Council into the city’s charter and a complete rewrite of the preamble to the city charter, which would acknowledge the history of the “unceded territory” the city occupies and its relationship with Native American tribes.

An additional proposal would require the city council to form an ethics commission and adopt a code of ethical conduct, which would require city officials to be trained in its standards.

Finally, the commission includes a proposal for participatory budgeting, which would set aside a portion of the budget to be allocated directly to Portland residents.

The commission is scheduled to submit its final report to the city council on June 8. It will seek public comment on the preliminary report at its upcoming scheduled meetings prior to submission of the final report.

Portland residents will vote on the commission’s proposed changes during the November 8 election.