PORTLAND — Tired of seeing big money change the direction of elections, Fair Elections Portland is pushing for a charter amendment that would establish a public funding system for school board, city council and mayoral candidates.

Over the summer, the groups collected more than 8,000 signatures of registered voters to officially bring the idea before voters in November.

That change, however, will not be coming before voters in the Nov. 5 general election after councilors decided Sept. 4 not to place the matter on the November ballot. When, and how, it comes back before the council, will be decided at the next council meeting on Sept. 16.

The measure, according to Fair Elections Portland, would “establish a mechanism providing public campaign funds to qualified candidates for mayor, city council and school board.” The funding mechanism would “provide sufficient funds to allow candidates who meet qualifying criteria to conduct competitive campaigns, must be voluntary, must limit the amount of private funds a candidate may raise, must only be available to candidates who demonstrate public support, and must be limited to candidates who enter into a binding agreement not to accept private contributions other than those allowed by the public funding program. The mechanism must be available by the 2021 municipal elections.”

The issue is, the petition indicated the program would be a charter amendment, but Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s corporation counsel, is of the mind that a public funding system for local candidates was not a simple charter amendment, but rather a charter revision, which warrants forming a charter commission.

“I found it was a charter revision and required a charter commission to review it. Because of statutory language, it can’t be sent to voters until June,” West-Chuhta said.

One member of Fair Elections Portland didn’t see it that way.

“The record-setting number of signatures have been certified and the petitioners have the legal right to expect you to move this forward. You only have two choices: a charter amendment on the November ballot or a charter revision far off into the future,” said attorney John Bratigam, counsel for Free Elections Portland.

Bratigam said a charter revision is not needed because the amendment would not alter the structure of government in the city.

“This proposal would only create a public funding option for local candidates. The council would be free to design the details, but the key fact is, it would not change the structure of Portland municipal government,” he said.

“Please don’t shut them out. Don’t make them sue their own city in court to validate the democratic constitutional right,” he added.

Dena Libner, volunteer communications director for Fair Elections Portland, said the group is taking a “wait and see approach” to determine what its next step is.

“The possibility of a lawsuit is very real, but we hope it does not come to that,” Libner said.

Councilor Brian Batson said he felt it was never the intention of the thousands of people who signed the petition to form a charter commission because they were under the impression making the change would only require a charter amendment and public vote. There may have been people, Councilor Nick Mavodones said, “who wouldn’t have signed this had they known there would be a need for a charter commission.”

Councilor Belinda Ray disagreed. Because the language of the petition states the funding mechanism must be in place by 2021, Ray said it “is clear” to her that requiring the program to be funded annually takes away the council’s right to manage the finances of the city as they see fit and therefore a charter revision, and commission, is needed.

Nevertheless, Ray said between now and the next council meeting she will work with Councilor Justin Costa and corporation counsel “to get this to voters without going through a charter commission.”

“That is a much better route for me,” she said.

Anna Kellar, chairman of Fair Elections Portland, argued it was an amendment and urged the council to send the topic out to voters in November.

Councilor Pious Ali agreed and made a motion to place it on the November ballot.

“I would encourage us to follow the wishes of our constituents, so I will make a motion to put it on the ballot as a charter amendment,” he said.

Ali only found the support of Mayor Ethan Strimling to do so. Strimling said he did not feel it was a fundamental enough change to warrant a charter commission review and was worried what it could mean for the city by not placing in on the ballot in November.

“I am very fearful we are now headed to litigation,” he said on Twitter the day after the council’s vote. “We cannot simply ignore or block a citizen initiative. It must be sent out one way or the other.”

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