The South Portland City Council defied the legal advice of its attorney Monday night and voted to overrule the authority of City Clerk Emily Carrington on a petition issue without notifying residents in advance or accepting public comment.

Over the objections of Mayor Thomas Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen, a former city clerk, the other five councilors voted to halt the petition-gathering process for a voter initiative aimed at reversing the council’s decision last spring to reconfigure a one-block section of Ocean Street in the Knightville neighborhood from one-way to two-way traffic.

While Blake and all six councilors expressed concerns about the petition-gathering effort, which failed to meet its July 15 deadline and did not submit the required number of valid signatures, five councilors voted to overrule Carrington’s decision to give the petition-gatherers more time to correct the deficiencies. They did so despite the assertion by Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett that Carrington as city clerk had the authority to extend the deadline, and that she had done so in accordance with Daggett’s own legal advice.

“Under the charter, it’s the city clerk who determines the sufficiency of the petition, and she has indicated she’s going to follow my advice,” Daggett said, referring to a memo she had drafted that outlined the legal precedent for allowing, even favoring, a deadline extension.

Daggett went on to say that the issue should nonetheless be placed on a future agenda for action because no public notice had been given of a council vote.

“Nobody has had notice that there’s anything on the agenda for action on this item, by ordinance, order or resolve,” Daggett said before the vote.

Instead, the group of five, led by Councilor Claude Morgan, questioned the legitimacy of both the petitions and Carrington’s decision to give the petition-gatherers time to collect more signatures even though the deadline had passed and they had come up short.

Morgan also noted that one petition sheet had been notarized but not signed by any petition circulator, which led him to believe the petitioners had used “deceptive” tactics.

“If we let this go back out, we are approving some incredibly shoddy petition work here,” he said.

Councilors Patricia Smith, Eben Rose, Brad Fox and Maxine Beecher voiced their agreement by voting along with Morgan to halt the Ocean Street petition process.

“Common sense says to me that they have already missed that deadline,” Beecher said. “Truly, at this point, my inclination is to have no action on this.”

Carrington announced Friday that the citizen initiative petition to return the block between E and D streets to one-way traffic fell short of the required number of signatures and said the issue would 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, Carrington said. One petition page containing 30 valid signatures was rejected because it hadn’t been signed by the circulator as required by law, 90 signatures weren’t made by registered South Portland voters, and 15 signatures were duplicates.

But rather than call the petition effort a failure, Carrington said she planned to let the petitioners collect and submit additional signatures to meet the required number. She was acting on the advice of 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.” Daggett also noted language in past legal cases in Maine and elsewhere that encouraged leniency toward petition-gatherers under such circumstances.

But at Monday night’s meeting, Morgan disagreed with Daggett’s opinion, and he scolded Carrington for seeking out Daggett’s legal advice without receiving instructions to do so from the council.

“By your anticipation, you are directing policy here that rightfully belongs to these legislators,” Morgan said to Carrington. “That’s why I believe we have a right to make a motion for you to cease and desist and not allow (more petitions to be submitted).”

Councilor Cohen, the former city clerk, was the sole defender of Carrington’s decision to seek legal advice.

“Any good municipal official who is put into a situation dealing with the public should always anticipate all the different outcomes and all the different questions,” Cohen said, “and I think that being prepared is what we expect of our municipal employees.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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