A city ordinance that would keep two citizens initiatives off the November ballot may not have been enacted properly, potentially clearing the path for a citywide vote on the referendum questions this fall.

The city announced Monday that petitions submitted for two citizens initiatives were not submitted in time to make the fall ballot, despite previous statements that Aug. 7 was the deadline. The reversal prompted two rallies at City Hall on Wednesday.

The city cited an ordinance that requires the City Council to hold a public hearing on the initiatives at least 90 days before the election. That deadline was Wednesday, which was impossible to meet, since the clerk needed to verify the signatures, which can take up to 15 days, and the council needed to provide at least 10 days notice of the hearing.

However, the 90-day rule may not be valid. That’s because the City Council amended its ordinance relating to citizen petitions and people’s vetoes in November 2011. Among other changes, the amendment increased the minimum time between a public hearing on a ballot question and Election Day from 60 days to 90 days.

But the Maine Constitution requires changes to the citizens referendum and people’s veto process to be passed in a citywide referendum before they can take effect.

A review of the agenda from the Nov. 21, 2011, meeting when the amendment was adopted does not indicate the City Council ever set a date for a vote, and a review of press clippings does not indicate that a vote was ever held.

Former City Councilor Cheryl Leeman was listed as a sponsor of the change.

“I don’t think it did” go to a citywide vote, Leeman said.

ACTIVISTS WARY, HOPEFUL

On Thursday afternoon, the city confirmed that the 2011 changes were void and said one path forward would be to put both referendum questions on the ballot after holding a public hearing at least 60 days before the Nov. 7 election.

Mary Davis of Give Neighborhoods a Voice, which collected about 2,000 signatures in an effort to increase the leverage of residents in zoning decisions, said her group is still trying to understand what the city’s announcement means. She’s worried about potential legal challenges stemming from the confusion.

“We don’t want to win and then have to win again,” Davis said of the prospect of having to defend an electoral victory in court.

Fair Rent Portland, which collected roughly 2,500 signatures in a bid to control rents, was similarly cautious.

“We’re excited that the city has found a potential solution that will put our referendum on the ballot this November, and we are looking over the implications of their proposals,” organizer Jack O’Brien said.

The apparent oversight in 2011 occurred under longtime Corporation Counsel Gary Wood, who retired in 2012. Danielle West-Chuhta was hired in 2013 to replace Wood, who served for 21 years.

When the ordinance was amended, the city was embroiled in a legal battle with OccupyMaine protesters, who were fighting the city’s efforts to evict them from their encampment in Lincoln Park.

The ordinance previously had been amended in 1991. Press clippings at that time indicate those changes, which increased the number of signatures needed to force a referendum from 750 to 1,500, were sent to a citywide vote.

When contacted Thursday morning, City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin would not confirm if the city was investigating whether the 2011 changes were enacted properly.

However, Grondin released a statement in the afternoon, confirming that the issue had been researched and that the changes had not been passed in a citywide referendum, meaning the current housing initiatives had time to make the ballot if enough signatures had been collected. Later Thursday, Grondin said the required signatures had been verified to qualify both initiatives for the ballot.

“As previously stated, we remain truly sorry for this unintentional error,” she said. “Since uncovering the error, the City Clerk’s Office and the Office of the Corporation Counsel have been working extra hours to validate the signatures and to find solutions that would allow this to go forward as planned.”

She added, “While we have not yet completely finished this research and collected all of the information necessary, we realize the importance in providing this update to the petition groups who worked so hard to follow the process that was outlined to them. The goal of the council workshop is to relay all of this information in an open and transparent forum and to explain how this error occurred.”

Grondin said in an interview that neither West-Chuhta nor City Clerk Katherine Jones was in the office Thursday, and the clerk’s office staff was busy verifying signatures on the ballot initiatives.

HEARING EXPECTED SEPT. 6

The city said a second course of action would be for the council to enact both proposed ordinances with an effective date for sometime after the Nov. 7 election and then send both questions out to the voters as advisory questions. The council would then let any voter-endorsed ordinances take effect, and repeal any that were defeated before they could take effect.

Grondin said the city preferred the first option, putting the referendum questions on the ballot. The City Council is expected to set a public hearing for Sept. 6 when it meets on Aug. 21, she said.

It’s the latest turn in a rapidly evolving drama that has been gripping City Hall all week.

Petitioners were blindsided when the city clerk told them Monday’s deadline was incorrect and that the measures would need to be voted on either in a special election or next June. That sparked two rallies Wednesday organized by Fair Rent Portland.

Organizers called on the city to provide a full accounting of how and why the mistakes were made.

Fair Rent Portland is looking to establish a rent stabilization ordinance in Maine’s largest city.

Their proposal would limit annual rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own five or more units. It also would establish a landlord-tenant board that would mediate disputes, assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants and allow landlords to increase rents beyond what the ordinance allows, 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 the support of a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document within 45 days.

Efforts to pressure city leaders to get these questions on the November ballot have drawn support from the Socialist Party of Southern Maine and Progressive Portland.

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

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