SOUTH PORTLAND — Controversy is brewing again over a blocklong section of downtown Ocean Street that the City Council changed from one-way to two-way traffic last spring.

Petitioners who want to reverse the council’s action have run into problems gathering signatures, and the petition question itself may call for the council to take an illegal action, according to a city resident who is a former municipal attorney.

beforeafter
A September 2014 file photograph (left) and a August 1, 2016 photograph (right) illustrate the changes to Ocean Street near Legion Square in its former one-way configuration (click and drag the slider to compare). 2014 photo by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; 2014 photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

City Clerk Emily Carrington announced Friday that a citizen initiative petition to return the block between E and D streets to one-way traffic fell short of the required number of signatures. The issue will be brought before the council Monday evening.

The petitioners needed 944 signatures – 5 percent of 18,874 registered voters during the last election – but they submitted only 905 valid signatures two weeks ago, Carrington said. One petition page containing 30 valid signatures was rejected because it wasn’t signed by the circulator as required by law; 90 signatures weren’t registered South Portland voters; and 15 signatures were duplicates.

But rather than call the petition effort a failure, Carrington said she plans to let the petitioners collect and submit additional signatures to meet the larger number. She’s acting on the advice of Sally Daggett, the city’s attorney, who based her recommendation on the fact that the city charter doesn’t contain a filing deadline for citizen initiative petitions and “is silent on the issue of supplemental signatures.”

Carrington said she gave the petitioners an “arbitrary” filing deadline of July 15, to ensure there would be enough time to process the petition to meet their goal of getting the question on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“Depending on the timing of everything, that may happen or that may not happen,” Carrington said Friday.

Daggett noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the circulation of initiative petitions is “core political speech” that should be protected under the First Amendment unless it threatens “important state interests,” and Maine case law calls for initiative laws to be liberally interpreted.

Carrington will seek direction from the City Council when it meets on Monday, with the understanding that if she allows the petitioners to gather and submit additional signatures, the council would then be asked to recognize and accept them, Daggett said.

The petition was started by Alan Cardinal, a Scarborough resident who owns Smaha’s Legion Square Market at 101 Ocean St. Cardinal didn’t respond to a call for comment.

A larger question that councilors must consider is whether the initiative question is legal to start with, said Natalie West, a retired municipal lawyer who is active in city government. West contends that it’s not.

“This isn’t a legislative matter that should be placed on the ballot,” West said. “It’s an administrative matter involving traffic and parking on one section of one street in South Portland.”

West said the council can appropriately decline to place the question on the ballot even if signatures are submitted in support of the measure. She referred to various cases in which citizen initiatives were struck down, including measures seeking a highway project in Oregon, a new street name in Washington, a paving project in Montana and a zoning variance in Utah. West said she plans to raise the issue at Monday’s council meeting.

In March, the City Council voted 4-2 to get rid of the one-way section in an attempt to address a controversy that had gripped the Knightville neighborhood for more than two years. At the end of May, a public works crew painted new stripes on the street, restoring two-way traffic flow between E and D streets and changing 15 angled parking spaces on the west side of Ocean Street to nine regular parallel spaces.

Supporters of the change said the one-way travel pattern with angled parking was unsafe and confusing, increased traffic and speeding on residential side streets and deterred some would-be downtown shoppers. Opponents disputed those claims and worried that the loss of six parking spaces on Ocean Street would hurt businesses.