PORTLAND — Members of the city’s Charter Commission, whose meetings have been sparsely attended, got an earful Tuesday night when more than 30 people turned out for a public input session at City Hall.

The topic on the minds of many who attended the 90-minute session was whether Portland should let non-citizen, legal residents vote in city elections.

Commissioners plan to take a position on the issue at their meeting Thursday night.

All of their recommendations, including a provision for a popularly elected mayor chosen through a system of ranked choice voting, will be subject to voter approval in November before they can be incorporated into the city charter.

”It’s clearly a hot-button topic,” Commissioner Nathan Smith said of non-citizen voting.

Smith led one of several discussion groups that gave residents a chance to share their opinions on some of the matters that commissioners have been considering since they started meeting last summer.

”I am personally in favor of (non-citizen voting). These people pay taxes and their voices should be heard,” said Stephen Jenks. ”Denying them a voice just makes no sense to me.”

David Brenerman, who was Portland’s mayor during the mid-1980s, disagreed. He noted that it is a fundamental principle in the United States that voting should be for citizens.

He said his grandfather was an immigrant, but ”landing here, coming here, doesn’t guarantee the right to vote.”

Otrude Moyo, who teaches social policy at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, said the city should allow non-citizens to vote because becoming a U.S. citizen is costly and can take years.

”By not allowing them to vote, you disenfranchise people,” said Moyo, who lives in Gorham. ”You isolate them even more by not including them.”

A couple of commissioners said they were surprised by the turnout and by how engaged the participants were in the process.

”The intensity of interest in what we are doing is what surprised me tonight,” said Commissioner Naomi Mermin. ”Especially when you consider that our meeting room is usually empty.”

Commissioner Pamela Plumb said, ”There is a depth of interest out there that I was not aware of. I have seen a lot of faces here tonight that I have never seen before.”

Commissioners are also considering charter changes that would affect the School Department, including changing the name of the School Committee to the Board of Public Education and offering school officials stipends comparable to what is paid to city councilors.

Plumb, the commission’s chairwoman, said the commission must present its preliminary report by May 21, with a final recommendation due to the City Council by July 19.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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