Questions are being raised about whether a magazine was exercising its free speech rights as a media outlet, or as a political action committee, when it solicited advertiser contributions for a special edition opposing a Portland ballot question on scenic views.

The Save the Soul of Portland Political Action Committee has asked the City Clerk and the Maine State Ethics Commission to investigate whether Old Port Magazine broke local or state regulations in connection with the issue it published last week.

The PAC, which supports Question 2 on the Portland ballot, argues that the magazine failed to place the required disclaimer for political advertising on a news story advocating against the ballot question, which would establish a process for protecting scenic views.

Save the Soul of Portland points out that the magazine’s publishers, Maine Media Collective, registered a political action committee with the city shortly before the issue in question was published. The PAC lists a $9,000 donation from Portland’s Future, another PAC that opposes the scenic view question.

Save the Soul of Portland also released an email apparently from a sales representative for the magazine asking advertisers for additional contributions to expand the circulation of the special edition with content “supporting a Vote No on 2 vote.”

The complaint comes as Portland’s Future PAC is gaining the backing of several prominent groups and individuals, including Avesta Housing, Homeless Voices for Justice and more than two dozen members of the city’s working waterfront.

The ethics commission’s assistant director, Paul Lavin, said Monday he hadn’t seen the complaint, but he noted that editorials, news stories and commentary may fall under an exemption of campaign finance laws.

“It’s impossible to say until we see the content of the complaint,” Lavin said.

Save the Soul of Portland PAC President Peter Macomber said in his complaint that he understands that the exemption for “legitimate media organizations” is necessary to allow them to editorialize and advocate for and against causes, but said that was not the case here.

“We don’t believe the exemption anticipated a media organization raising money from individuals and businesses for the sole and specific purpose of influencing the outcome of an election, and failing to inform their readers of their financial interest,” he said. “This, we believe, raises serious legal and ethical questions that deserve to be answered.”

Publisher Kevin Thomas said in email that the magazine consulted its attorney and the Maine Ethics Commission before publishing the package.

“It has been our intention to be in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” Thomas said. In fact, we went above and beyond by filing as a Ballot Question Committee despite constitutional freedom of press protection afforded to publishing concerns as recognized by the Maine Ethics Commission. We will respond to any questions that are forthcoming from the Portland City Clerk’s office or the Maine Ethics Commission. After we have an opportunity to review the complaint with our attorney, we intend to file a complete response.”

The Soul of Portland noted that the publisher, Maine Media Collective, formed a political action group, but notes that the PAC didn’t file a finance report on Oct. 23, as required. The group’s initial filing reported $21,000 in contributions, including $9,000 from Portland’s Future PAC.

Ethics complaints against media outlets are not unprecedented.

A complaint was filed against a website, Cutler Files, during the 2010 gubernatorial election. The site, which was critical of independent candidate Eliot Cutler and associated with another gubernatorial candidate, was run by Dennis Bailey, who is handling public relations for the Soul of Portland. The Maine Ethics Commission ruled that the site did not qualify for the media exemption and Bailey was fined $200. The ruling was upheld in federal court.

The Soul of Portland’s complaint contains an email purportedly from an advertising salesperson Karen Bowe, the advertising account manager for Maine Magazine and Old Port Magazine, asking businesses to contribute $1,000 toward the special edition, of which at least 28,000 additional copies would be printed. The edition featured a story titled “A City on the Edge,” along with a call to action from the editor and other opinions opposed to Question 2.

“We are also concerned about the potential negative impact of a yes vote on the pending referendum,” Bowe wrote. “In response, we are on the brink of an unprecedented move for us.”

Bowe wrote that the funds raised would allow the magazine to increase the number of pages, print more copies and expand its mailings.

“We’ve never seen anything like this, but it’s just another example of how opponents of Question 2 are using their money and influence to stack the deck unfairly against the people of Portland,” said Anne Rand, spokesperson for Save the Soul of Portland. “Readers of this magazine won’t realize that the printing, distribution and even the articles themselves were paid for by the opponents of Question 2, including organizations and corporations connected to the developers of 58 Fore Street.”

Portland’s Future dismissed the complaint as a distraction.

“This is a baseless complaint against Portland’s Future and merely an attempt to distract from the fact that Question 2 is bad for Portland’s economy and job creation,” said Jess Knox, co-chair of the Portland’s future. “That’s why it’s opposed by a broad and growing coalition that includes more than 20 working waterfront businesses including fishermen, longshoremen, wharf operators, and freight handlers, not to mention AARP Maine, Avesta Housing, Homeless Voices for Justice and many others.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings


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