An attorney for the city of Portland on Thursday urged a judge to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the city wrongly rejected a petition in support of holding a referendum on whether to create a municipal clean elections program.

Cumberland County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy did not rule on the dismissal request, saying only that she has the case “under advisement.” It’s unclear when she will make a decision.

Fair Elections Portland sued the city after the City Council voted not to hold a citywide vote on whether to create a clean elections program, which would provide public funding for municipal candidates who agree to limit contributions from private donors.

The group had collected thousands of signatures in support of what it argued was a simple amendment to the city charter, minor enough that it could be approved by a simple referendum vote.

However, a city attorney convinced councilors not to send the proposal to voters because it would require the city to pay for the clean elections program. That would be a major revision of  city government and would have to first be reviewed by a charter commission, a formal, prolonged process that might not result in an endorsement of clean elections.

The court arguments Thursday did not get to that core dispute but instead focused on flaws in the petition process that the city says mean the suit should not move forward.


The petition language approved by the city and circulated by advocates called only for a citywide referendum to amend the charter. The city erred by not including language that would have required the council to ask voters to form a Charter Commission if the council ruled it necessary.

City attorney Jennifer Thompson said the case should be dismissed because, while the city clerk is responsible for failing to include the additional language on the petitions, Fair Elections Portland knew about the omission but never brought the error to the city’s attention so it could be corrected.

The council effectively corrected the clerk’s error when it later decided to ask voters if they want to create charter commission, Thompson said. That vote is scheduled in June. Therefore, Thompson said, the plaintiffs were not harmed by the clerk’s error.

“The city did in fact do what the plaintiffs would have been entitled to if that language hadn’t been left off the petition,” Thompson said.

Benjamin Gaines, an attorney representing Fair Elections Portland, argued against dismissal, noting that the group is ultimately seeking the court’s judgment about whether a charter commission is even needed, as well as seeking attorney fees.

When asked why the group did not bring the petition error to the city’s attention, Gaines said no one in the group noticed it until they had been collecting signatures for two months. He said they were under a tight deadline to collect the signatures so the proposal could be included on the November ballot.

“There simply wasn’t enough time to start this over,” Gaines said.

After the arguments, Fair Elections Portland released a statement highlighting the fact that 8,500 Portland voters supported putting the question on the ballot as a charter amendment.

“It is bad enough that the city refused to place the petition on the ballot in violation of state law and the constitution,” spokesperson Anna Kellar said. “Now the city attorney contends that we have no right to challenge them in court.  We will not back away from this important issue.”

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