Portland officials are looking for ways to put two citizen initiatives on the November ballot, after a clerical error upended efforts by activists to have voters weigh in on rising rents and zoning changes in the city.

The groups – Give Neighborhoods a Voice and Fair Rent Portland – submitted petitions to City Hall on Monday, the deadline they were given by the city clerk’s office to qualify for the November ballot, which also includes three city council races and a school bond proposal.

However, the city announced late Monday that the timeline it provided was wrong and the two initiatives were submitted too late to meet a city code requirement that a public hearing be held 90 days prior to the vote.

Mayor Ethan Strimling was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But city councilors said they have asked the city attorney to research options for putting the questions to voters in November.

“I believe in the citizen initiative process so I wouldn’t want to be a part of thwarting it and I don’t think anybody is looking to do that,” said Councilor Jill Duson. “We have to look at what extraordinary measures are available to us.”

Councilors Justin Costa and David Brenerman said they share that desire.

“It’s certainly unfortunate,” Costa said. “From everything I’ve heard, there’s a pretty unanimous will of the council to move forward to fix this and come up with some workaround to get these on the November ballot. That was certainly the expectation” of activists and the city clerk’s office.

Councilors said it was too soon to say what options might be available. But city code does allow the council to put ballot questions to voters, though the timetable and noticing requirements are unclear. A section of the code says the council’s ordinance would have to be published in a newspaper 10 to 20 days before the election and posted in the city clerk’s office at least 14 days before the election. It does not specifically address a public hearing, for which the city would have to provide 10 to 20 days notice.

If the city can’t get the questions on the November ballot, a special election would have to be held or the questions would go to voters in the June primary election.

Fair Rent Portland, which wants to limit rent increases, plans to hold rallies at noon and 5 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall to keep the pressure on city officials.

“This cannot stand,” the group said in an email to supporters. “Portland’s citizens trust in our public officials to provide accurate information about the requirements of civic engagement. To negate an important civic initiative on the basis of an admitted clerical error runs counter to the spirit of the democratic process. Now is the moment to work together to show a swell of support to keep this referendum on the November ballot!”

Jack O’Brien of Fair Rent Portland said the group plans to meet with the city clerk’s office for explanation of how the error was made. Members also plan to meet with the group’s attorney to consider their options. The group said it had kept in contact with the city to ensure the question would appear in November.

O’Brien said the group collected more than the 1,500 signatures required to get their rent stabilization initiative on the ballot well before the erroneous Aug. 7 deadline. The proposal would cap rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own five or more units, and establish a landlord-tenant board, among other things.

“We had more than 1,500 (signatures) two weeks ago,” O’Brien said. “We were just making sure our cushion was as large as possible.”

Mary Davis, of Give Neighborhoods a Voice, said her group was also considering its options. Its initiative would give neighborhood residents more say in rezoning decisions, which are currently made by the City Council after recommendation by the Planning Board.

While the current process requires public hearings, the initiative would allow residents to block a zone change if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet sign a document opposing the change. However, a developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document in support within 45 days.

Davis said she received a phone call from the city informing her of the error while she was driving Monday afternoon.

“I was stunned,” Davis said. “I had to pull over.”

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said Tuesday that an email from Mary Costigan, a former city attorney who now represents developers, prompted the city attorney to review the referendum process outlined in the city code. Costigan specifically highlighted the requirement that the City Council hold a public hearing on citizen initiatives at least 90 days before Election Day, Grondin said.

Grondin noted that Monday marked 92 days before Election Day, which is Nov. 7. She said the City Council is required to provide 10 days notice of such a public hearing. The city ordinance gives the city clerk 15 days to verify petition signatures.

Chalking the error up to an honest mistake, councilors interviewed Tuesday expressed support for City Clerk Katherine Jones, who is on a planned vacation until Aug. 14. Councilors said they want to figure out how the error was made, but differed on whether the full council should be briefed by Jones in executive session, or whether a more informal process would suffice.

“There’s no need for an inquisition,” Brenerman said. “I don’t think it’s useful to blame anybody. It occurred and we just have to move on and figure out how to address the problem.”

Duson noted that election- related troubles are rare in Portland.

“I appreciate the clerk’s quick ownership of the problem,” she said. “It’s just a mistake. I don’t think you can find a harder-working or more intensely committed member of city staff.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said officials are primarily concerned with fixing the error.

“The focus now is getting this to the November ballot,” Thibodeau said, noting that the council should also meet with Jones to figure out what happened.

Costa, who chairs the Nominations Committee that oversees performance review of council employees (the clerk, city manager and city attorney), said it’s important to understand where the breakdown occurred. He noted that the deadline provided by the clerk’s office and the true deadline were “significantly different.”

“I think it’s a discussion we will have at the full council to make sure we’re communicating clearly and to understand exactly what happened here,” Costa said.

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

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