A proposal that could lead to significant changes in Portland city government, including to the elected mayor and city manager positions, was overwhelmingly approved by voters on Election Day.

Question A on the city ballot, which asked residents if they wanted to form a charter commission, had strong support from 5,200 people who turned out to vote Tuesday, but the results were not made official until an unprecedented number of absentee ballots were tallied, a process that stretched into Wednesday evening. After all votes were counted, the charter commission measure passed by a vote of 13,220 in favor and 4,998 opposed, according to results released by the city. More than 72 percent of voters supported formation of a charter commission.

Voters also overwhelmingly approved the $120 million school budget by a vote of 16,241 in favor and 2,555 opposed – a margin of more than 6 to 1. The budget will not increase taxes, even though it represents a 2.1 percent increase over the current $117.3 million budget. The spending plan, which takes effect July 1, is lower than the original $122.3 million budget proposed in March prior to the pandemic.

“The budget was a responsible one that was unanimously endorsed by the Portland Board of Public Education and the City Council,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a statement Wednesday evening. “It represents an effort to balance the needs of our students with the economic uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 crisis to many in our community.”

Botana said the education budget will not raise taxes, but will advance the school district’s Equity goals by adding two more pre-kindergarten classes, an autism spectrum disorder program for high school students, and investments in the district’s math and literacy curricula.

The charter commission question landed on the city ballot in response to Fair Elections Portland’s petition to create a public financing system for candidates seeking municipal office, though there is no guarantee that a commission will recommend creating such a program.

But after several high-profile police killings of Black people by police led to nationwide and local protests, the questions morphed into an opportunity to consider more significant changes, including rooting out systemic racism and addressing the controversy over the elected mayor job, a full-time position that has no real power over daily operations of the city.

Although the new mayor’s position has been controversial, there was no coordinated campaign around the charter question, though some progressive groups mounted a last-minute social media push in support of it. Among those calling for passage in the closing days and weeks were Black Lives Matter Portland, Fair Elections Portland, Southern Maine Democratic Socialists and City Councilors Pious Ali and Kim Cook.

“I’m glad voters around the city are open to change,” Fair Elections Portland spokesperson Anna Kellar said in an email Wednesday. “We have the opportunity to use this process to include more perspectives, and have a form of government that is clearly understood, effective and highly participatory.”

Question A on the city ballot asked voters if they wanted to form a charter commission to review the city charter, which lays out the basic power structure of municipal government in Maine’s largest city. The charter was last reopened and changed 12 years ago. That process led to a charter change that required the mayor to be elected to a four-year term by voters citywide, rather than councilors choosing their own mayor for a one year term.

Whether Portland, a city with more than 66,000 residents, needs both a professional city manager and a full-time popularly elected mayor with no executive power to run daily operations has been a spirited topic of debate ever since it was proposed and approved by voters in 2010. Both proponents and opponents of the current system have discussed reopening the charter in recent years, but this was the first opportunity to do so.

The results suggest the time was ripe for a public debate about that and other parts of city government, including whether to create a public financing program for local races or providing more robust citizen oversight of the police department or changing the way city budgets get drafted by giving more direct input to residents, something referred to as participatory budgeting.

In the coming months, a 12-member charter commission will be formed. Three of the members will be appointed by the City Council, while the remaining nine will be elected like councilors – one from each of the city’s five voting districts and four at-large members. The group will hold a series of meetings and public hearings to draft potential charter changes. Their recommendation would then go to voters for approval.

Most voters heeded calls from elected and public health officials to vote absentee to reduce the risk of becoming infected or transmitting the contagious coronavirus. Only 8.7 percent, or 5,210, of the city’s 59,659 registered voters turned out to the polls Tuesday. Another 18,000 residents requested absentee ballots. Unofficially, it would appear that 14,752 absentee ballots were cast.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said 19,962 people voted in Tuesday’s election – 33.5 percent of registered voters.

Nearly 68 percent of voters who cast ballots in-person Tuesday favored reopening the charter. The proposal was supported citywide by a vote of 2,873 to 1,367. However, the measure was far more popular among the more progressive voters on the peninsula, where it was supported by 77.5 percent of voters, 1,421 to 411. Off peninsula, 60 percent of voters supported it, 1,452 to 956.

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