When the idea to assemble a charter commission for Portland was hatched last year, one issue gave it energy.

But for some reason, it’s not the one that we are talking about in 2010.

The Charter Commission was formed as a result of broad dissatisfaction with the city’s current system of government and the growing belief that a popularly elected mayor would better serve the city.

Since it would be impossible to make such a far-reaching change on its own without considering many other related changes, the Charter Commission was created to study the alternatives and put a whole package of proposals before the voters in November.

Somehow, though, this process became an exercise in making Portland the first community in Maine to allow noncitizens who are legal residents of the city to vote in municipal elections.

Meetings on the elected mayor were sparsely attended. The commission’s diligent work in the weeds of civic governance got little positive attention.


But the noncitizen voting reform turned out big crowds and grabbed headlines, with passionate supporters and equally passionate opponents trading barbs. Now that the Charter Commission has voted 7-5 against putting the issue before the voters in their package, there is talk about a stand-alone citizen initiative campaign.

The commission did the right thing. Noncitizen voting is a hot-button issue, and it had the chance to obscure the important city government reforms just as it grabbed all the attention during the hearing process. The commission was created to look at the structure of the city government and make recommendations, not to right all wrongs.

There are clearly a number of people who see noncitizen voting as an important civil rights issue, and they say they can get enough signatures to put it on the ballot independently of the Charter Commission’s changes.

If they can, the two very different issues can be on the same ballot without being tied together as commission recommendations.

That would mean that introducing an  elected mayor – a highly controversial issue in Portland for decades – would have a chance of getting the attention it deserves when voters go to the polls.

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