Commission submits final report proposing eight changes to Portland’s charter

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Portland’s Charter Commission submitted its final report, including eight proposals for reform that will appear on the ballot in November, to the city council on July 11. 

When voters approve or reject the commission’s proposals in November, they will cap a two-year long charter review process that began on July 14, 2020 with the approval of a ballot referenda authorizing a review of the city charter.

The commission’s preliminary report was submitted to the city council during its May 16 meeting. The final report submitted to the city council on July 11 contains many of the same recommendations for change, including a clean elections initiative and the creation of a strong mayor, with the exception of a proposal that would have allowed noncitizens to vote in Portland elections.

The first question that will appear on the ballot in November asks voters whether the city should approve the commission’s changes to the charter’s preamble.

The commission would strike the current preamble in its entirety and replace it with a new preamble, which “restates the purpose of the city’s government and of its system of public education, and adds a land acknowledgment to address and respect Portland’s past.” The land acknowledgment notes Portland is “located in the unceded territory of the Aucocisco Band of the Wabanaki,” and acknowledges harm done to native tribes by displacement.

The second ballot question generated by the commission’s work relates to proposed changes to Portland’s governance model, including the creation of an executive mayor.

The proposal would not only create an executive mayor, but would also replace the city manager with a chief operating officer. 

Under the new governance model, the mayor would have the power to nominate for appointment the chief operating officer and all city department heads. The mayor would also be able to remove the chief operating officer. The mayor would also have veto power over the city budget and all city council actions relating to city ordinances. The mayor would also be able to recommend to the city council proposed rules governing communication between city staff and elected officials.

If the proposed changes are approved by voters, the mayor’s salary would increase to two times the median household income of the city. School board members would receive ten percent of the mayor’s salary.

The proposal would also increase the number of members on the city council to 12, with nine members representing districts rather than five. Three city councilors would serve as at-large members.

Additionally, under the proposed changes, councilors would elect a chair and vice-chair who would have the power to organize council committees from among the council’s members. The chair would preside over city council meetings and set meeting agendas, powers currently held by the mayor. 

The proposed changes would require the city council to create a review committee to evaluate the performance of the corporation counsel and city clerk. The committee would also hold regular meetings with the chief operating officer and city department heads to “understand the general working conditions and morale at city hall.”

Further, the city council would create and implement a budget development process that includes the input from Portland residents. 

The city council would have the power to censure or remove the mayor for cause and to order a mayoral recall election.

The model of governance proposal would also ask voters to approve expanding the number of school board members that represent districts, from five to nine. The proposal would eliminate at-large members. 

The school board would work with the city council to establish a joint budget committee, made up of four city councilors and four school board members appointed respectively by the chairs of the council and the school board. The committee would develop a non-binding budget guidance document for the city council and school board.

The proposal would also modify the city’s capital improvement program so that the chief operating officer would jointly prepare a five-year capital improvement plan with the superintendent of schools. 

Finally, it would modify how vacancies on the city council and school board are handled, requiring a special election if a vacancy occurs more than six months before the next municipal election. If a vacancy occurs within six months of a municipal election, the city council or school board would appoint someone to fill the position.

Four of the commission’s members filed a minority report opposing the governance proposal.

“We believe the proposal goes too far, too fast, for the City of Portland, whose home rule powers over municipal affairs do not exist in a vacuum and are derived and delegated to the city by the state of Maine,” wrote commissioners Marpheen Chann, Peter Eglinton, Shay Stewart-Bouley, and Dory-Anna Richards Waxman.

A third ballot question will ask voters to approve charter modifications related to clean elections.

The proposal would create a City of Portland Clean Election Fund, which would provide public campaign dollars to qualified municipal candidates beginning in fiscal year 2023-2024.

Participation in the public funding would be voluntary. To qualify, candidates would be limited in the amount of funds they could raise, meet requirements related to demonstrated public support, and would have to return unused funds at the close of an election. More specific requirements for candidate qualification to receive public funding would be passed by city council ordinance.

Under the proposal, the city council would allot a portion of the budget each year for the clean election fund. 

The proposal also requires the city to adopt campaign finance rules prohibiting corporate contributions to municipal candidates, prohibiting ballot question contributions or expenditures from foreign entities, and mandating that all campaign contributions be reported to the city clerk and publicly searchable through an online database.

A fourth ballot question asks Portland voters to approve the charter’s recommendation that proportional ranked choice voting be used in multiple seat elections. The proposed change would declare a winner based on thresholds determined by the number of seats to be filled plus one. If the question is approved by voters, the city council would be required to pass an ordinance creating a proportional ranked choice voting system.

Commissioner Zach Barowitz filed a minority report opposing the proposal. Barowitz worried that the system’s perceived favorability towards minority candidates could favor extremists. He also said the “byzantine complexity” of proportional ranked choice voting makes explaining it “nearly impossible to explain succinctly in casual conversation to the average voter.”

A fifth ballot question asks voters to approve the charter commission’s recommendations related to school board budget autonomy. 

The proposal would take control over the school board budget process from the city council, which currently controls the process, and give it to the school board. If the proposal passes, the city council would be able to conduct a public hearing on the proposed school budget and present non-binding recommendations to the school board, which it could choose to adopt or disregard.

The school budget would still be voted on during a referendum election. However, if voters rejected a proposed school budget, the final vote would be made at a municipal school budget referendum.

Commissioners Eglinton, Waxman, and Robert O’Brien filed a minority report opposing this proposal, arguing that the city council’s input and oversight over the total budget, rather than just line items, is “important for weighing school needs and the burden on all City residents, most having no children in the school district.”

A sixth ballot question would require the city council to continue an ordinance it has already enacted, which creates the Peaks Island Council as an elected advisory board to the city council. The city council would have to establish the powers, duties, and membership requirements of the Peaks Island Council.

A seventh ballot question would replace the city’s Police Citizens Review Board with a civilian police review board. The proposed civilian board would have at least nine members and would be appointed by the city council.

The board would receive complaints from civilians, which would then be referred to either the Portland Police Department Police Command or Internal Affairs for further investigation. The board would also review investigation reports from those two agencies, looking for issues related to due process, fairness, thoroughness, and objectivity, and could issue reports on what it reviewed.

Funding for the review board would be provided by city council, and would include money for full-time or part-time staff, including community and police liaisons.

The eighth and final ballot question asks voters to approve the commission’s modifications related to ethics among city officials. The proposal would require the city council to create an independent Ethics Commission and to adopt a code of ethical conduct.

The commission would have discretionary power to “render advisory opinions on matters of city business and violations of public trust.” The commission would also be able to recommend an accountability officer be hired to serve as an ombudsman to resolve disputes, and to provide education and ethics training to city officials.

A preliminary report produced by the charter commission included a proposal that would have allowed all Portland residents of voting age, regardless of citizenship status, to vote in municipal elections. This proposal was not included in the final report, in part because of concerns about its legality.

“The Committee and the Commission are aware of concerns 1) whether the proposal is a lawful exercise of municipal home rule charter authority where State law establishes voter qualifications, and 2) whether there could be unintended consequences and impacts upon immigrants who register and vote in municipal elections, but a majority of the Commission believes this is an important measure to promote justice that should be brought to the voters to decide. It received considerable support but was not able to attract a legal certification. Portland’s immigrant and asylum-seeker families are an important part of the city’s future, and more work is needed to increase their voice in its government and education,” the commission’s final report stated.

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