Portland city councilors on Monday finalized the makeup of a 12-member commission that will be tasked with reviewing the city charter – a process that could lead to significant changes to the power structure at City Hall.

Nine of the commissioners will be elected in the same way as councilors: one in each of the city’s five voting districts and four at large. The other three members were unanimously appointed by councilors Monday: Peter Eglinton, a former elected and appointed school official and current deputy director of the Efficiency Maine Trust; Michael Kebede, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine; and Dory Waxman, a former city councilor and a small business owner.

While the city did not set an election date, it almost certainly won’t happen in November, when the presidential election is expected to draw tens of thousands of voters. That’s primarily because the city followed the state’s lead and delayed its June primary by more than a month because of the coronavirus pandemic and there is not enough time for candidates to complete the nomination process, according to the city attorney.

Voters surprised many activists and city officials when they overwhelmingly approved creating a charter commission to review what is essentially the city constitution outlining the basic structure of city government. The question was placed on the ballot in response to a citizen-led effort to create a public financing option for municipal candidates.

Fair Elections Portland, which proposed the public financing option, initially opposed forming a charter commission, arguing that creating a clean elections program wouldn’t require it. They sued the city and the case is still pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, coupled with political unrest over police brutality against Black people, changed the political dynamics. Black Lives Matter Portland endorsed the commission as a way to dismantle systemic racism shortly before the election and other progressive groups, including Fair Elections Portland and Progressive Portland, followed suit. And the question, which many people expected to be defeated, was approved by 72.6 percent of voters.

Since voters endorsed the commission, the debate has focused on the timing of the election of commission members, with progressives pushing to hold it in November, when younger and more progressive voters are more likely to turn out because of the presidential election. But councilors agreed with the city attorney’s opinion that November was not an option, because nomination papers for candidates need to be made available to candidates 127 days before the election.

The July 14 election itself was only 112 days from Nov. 3.

“We need to be very clear with the public: There is not a lot of discretion here for the council.” City Councilor Justin Costa said. “We can’t waive those time requirements even if we want to.”

Anna Kellar, executive director of the Maine League of Women Voters and leader of Fair Elections Portland, disagreed.

“I’m still not convinced we couldn’t do this in November, when we wouldn’t be costing the city additional money for an election,” they said. “You would be getting 40,000 Portland voters showing up to choose who is on the charter commission.”

Benjamin Gaines, who serves on the boards of the League of Women Voters of Maine and Citizens for Clean Elections, co-authored an Op-Ed published in the Press Herald on Aug. 7 saying that not having the election on Nov. 3 would “disenfranchise everyday Portlanders, making it harder to participate.”

However, City Councilor Tae Chong said Monday that any effort to expedite the election would only favor political insiders, who have the connections and the means to get elected.

“There’s a reason these statutes are in place – we’re trying to make it more democratic,” Chong said, adding that the current timeline of 127 days seems too compressed. “Having less time doesn’t level the playing field, it allows people with more name recognition to be elected to the charter commission.”

Mayor Kate Snyder said the council is following the same general timeline as the last time a charter commission was formed 12 years ago. She said voters approved the commission in November 2008; the council appointed its members that December; and voted in February to elect nine other commissioners in June.

The changes resulting from that 2008 charter process required the mayor to be elected to a four-year term by city voters, 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.

Snyder said that she has asked the city clerk to present the council with a memo at the next council meeting on Aug. 31 outlining all of her election considerations, including the use of ranked-choice voting, costs associated with different election scenarios and a timeline for candidates to submit and for the clerk to verify nomination papers.

She said she will hear comments and questions from councilors at that meeting, but the council will not vote until a future meeting. She noted that the city budget, which is normally in place by July 1, is still being developed because of the upheaval caused by the coronavirus.

“I feel like we’re moving as fast as we can against the many issues that are before us as a council,” she said.

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