Last week the president of the United States called for our upcoming election to be postponed. We’re confident that Mainers see through Donald Trump’s campaign to delegitimize free and fair elections and restrict access to mail-in balloting. Unfortunately, we need to address a similar problem developing here in Portland.

On July 14, Portland voters sent a clear message: This is a moment for structural change. More than 72 percent of the people who cast a ballot supported a question establishing a commission to reform the city charter. Our co-occurring crises of pandemic, homelessness and racist and violent policing force us to re-examine the systems we live under, and to ask if things have to be the way they are. To many, including Black Lives Matter Portland, that means addressing systemic and institutionalized racism and reforming or eliminating the office and powers of Portland’s city manager.

Portland’s current government, elected and unelected, should make forming the commission fully transparent and accessible. That must begin with scheduling the election to pick the commissioners alongside this November’s presidential vote, as required by state law. We expect record turnout in November, allowing our entire community to choose who should design our new city government. While the ballots will be crowded, this will help ensure that diverse perspectives are represented on the commission. On Monday, the City Council will finally address that schedule. Any delay only disenfranchises everyday Portlanders, making it harder to participate.

Like many voters, we’ve been waiting a long time to see reform. Last summer, we collected signatures and submitted petitions to amend Portland’s charter providing for municipal clean elections. Unfortunately, Portland’s corporation counsel, Danielle West-Chuhta, creatively stretched an untested legal theory to keep that measure off the ballot rather than allowing the city’s voters to decide. Portland’s City Council signed off on her excuse. We’re still fighting that mistake before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

A few years earlier, West-Chuhta tried to employ another untried theory to prevent a citizens group from collecting petition signatures for a ballot measure to block the sale of a public park to private owners. Then too, Portland’s elected officials stayed silent, forcing the Friends of Congress Square Park to fight the battle in court – where eventually the citizens’ freedom of speech prevailed.

Two weeks ago, the corporation counsel issued a new memo, arguing that because city law requires candidate petitions to be made available 127 days prior to an election, it is now too late to hold the election for charter commissioners “in the same manner” as our City Council elections, and therefore it must be postponed. This advice comes despite statute requiring the vote to be held “at the next scheduled regular or special municipal or state election.” It also directly contradicts an opinion written by the same lawyer just last October.

One basic rule of construing laws is that where a general clause – like one requiring elections be held in the same manner – seems to contradict a specific clause – like one governing the scheduling of those elections – the specific clause takes precedence, functioning as an exception to the general. This helps explain why we haven’t found any other examples of Maine towns or cities skipping an election between voting to hold a charter commission and voting to select its members: It’s against the law.

This charter commission can and should tackle big questions of the kind of open government we need in Portland: one that looks for ways to better enfranchise its citizens, not one that invents novel interpretations of law to silence our voices.

When we see our president try to postpone votes and disenfranchise voters, we know that it’s wrong. When our leaders closer to home pull the same stunts, we should be equally skeptical and outraged. Are Portland’s leaders really so afraid of change that they must stall in hopes that the demands for reform will go away?


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