You can fix this

About 40 activists looking to rein in rents in Maine’s largest city held two rallies at Portland City Hall on Wednesday to pressure city leaders to put their rent-stabilization initiative on the November ballot.

Fair Rent Portland was originally told its referendum question would appear in November if it submitted 1,500 signatures of city voters to the city clerk by Aug. 7.The group was informed Monday, after submitting its petitions, that it had been given an incorrect deadline and the signatures were turned in too late, potentially delaying the referendum until June or until a special election is scheduled.

At the 5 p.m. rally, Fair Rent Portland member Meredith Cook announced that City Councilor Brian Batson and other councilors had told the group the measure would go to a November vote.

“I don’t have the full details but they did tell us we’d be on the November ballot,” she said.

However, neither Mayor Ethan Strimling, who attended the rally, nor City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin would confirm that. Strimling said the council was looking at several options, including putting the initiative on the ballot themselves or even changing the ordinance.

“We’ll have some information to release (Thursday),” Strimling said. “I think we’re optimistic we’ll get there.”

Give Neighborhoods a voice, a group backing an initiative to give residents more control over city zoning changes, was also told Monday that its petitions had been submitted too late for the November ballot.

Fair Rent Portland organizer Jack O’Brien said the group had yet to receive a full accounting Wednesday of how the error occurred, and said the group has been “prohibited” from speaking to staff in the clerk’s office. Such a lack of transparency is a threat to democracy, he said.

“We don’t want anyone to get fired. We understand mistakes happen,” O’Brien said. “But at the same time, scores of volunteers, hundreds of hours and thousands of engaged citizens made this possible. We absolutely need some sort of fair and transparent accounting in order to be able to trust our City Hall with these complex democratic issues.”

Supporters of Fair Rent Portland held signs saying:

“Let the people speak!” “Democracy requires transparency” and “You can fix this. Let us vote Nov. 7.”

ARE WE BEING HEARD?

No city councilors attended the noontime rally. Many of the protesters simply worried the initiative would not make it to the November ballot, while others said they feared City Hall was playing games to prevent it.

Aspiring City Council Candidate Joey Brunelle said he worried that the error is part of a larger pattern of government ignoring citizens. “My fear is that City Hall and state government are not listening to the needs of Portland and people around the state that are calling for affordable housing and a fairer distribution of income.”

Democratic State Rep. Michael Sylvester, who serves on the Labor, Commerce Research and Economic Development Committee, which oversees the Maine State Housing Authority, said the rent stabilization ordinance is “model legislation” that he planned to introduce in the next legislative session.

“It is our job here in Portland to make sure that this truth that we were bringing to the ballot gets heard throughout the state,” Sylvester said. “I promise you – this similar legislation will make it to the State House in the next session.”

Fair Rent Portland and Give Neighborhoods A Voice were blindsided Monday after turning in their petitions at City Hall for the two separate citizens initiatives, only to be told the questions would not make the November ballot.

Despite earlier assurances from the City Clerk’s Office that Monday was the deadline to get questions on the November ballot, the city attorney determined that the city did not have enough time to verify the signatures and hold public hearings 90 days before Election Day, as required by city ordinance.

Monday marked 92 days before the election. The city ordinance gives the clerk’s office 15 days to verify the signatures and requires at least 10 day’s notice of a public hearing on the proposal.

The city issued a statement Monday evening acknowledging and apologizing for the error.

SEARCHING FOR WORKAROUND

City councilors interviewed Tuesday said they had asked Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta to look for ways to put the questions to voters in November. Councilors noted that the city ordinance does allow the City Council to place initiatives on the ballot, but the process and timeline for doing so was not immediately clear.

Fair Rent Portland said it collected about 2,500 signatures in about five weeks, but had surpassed the 1,500 threshold about two weeks ago.

Their proposal, backed by Socialist Party of Southern Maine and Progressive Portland, would limit annual rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own five or more units. It would also establish a landlord-tenant board to mediate disputes, assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants and allow landlords to increase rents beyond what would be allowed in the ordinance, among other things.

Give Neighborhoods a Voice said it submitted about 2,000 signatures Monday for their initiative. Currently, the Planning Board vets rezoning requests and makes a recommendation to the City Council, which has the final say.

Their initiative would prevent a zone change from being enacted 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 a 45-day period.

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

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