The top city attorney said this week that a group of residents cannot initiate a recall of a newly elected charter commissioner who has repeatedly called Portland’s city manager a “white supremacist.”

Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef

The determination comes as the 12-member commission, which includes nine elected members and three members appointed by the Portland City Council, is slated to meet for the first time later this month, kicking off a year-long review of the city charter.

The process could lead to systemic change in the structure of municipal government, including whether the city should have a stronger elected mayor, whether the City Council could be expanded and paid more, and whether voting rights should be expanded to noncitizens, among other proposals.

Jay Norris, a former president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said this week that he is a part of a group of residents interested in recalling Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef over social media posts she made calling City Manager Jon Jennings a white supremacist. Norris said the group, the Portland Alliance for Good Government, consists of 38 active members, though he declined to name them without their permission.

Norris has only made an informal inquiry to the city about recalling Sheikh-Yousef and possibly Shay Stewart-Bouley. Sheikh-Yousef was the top first-round vote-getter in the 10-way race for four at large seats on the commission and one of four members in an alliance called the Rose Slate. Stewart-Bouley was elected in District 1. The possible recall effort was first reported by the Forecaster.

However, Corporation Counsel Danielle West and an outside attorney who has been hired to advise the charter commission said its members cannot be recalled under local or state laws.

That’s because the City Charter only allows for the recall of city councilors and school board members with more than a year left in their terms. In addition, state law limits the recalls of municipal officials to cases in which an official has been convicted of a crime against the municipality.

“Neither the current city charter nor the state law would allow for a recall under these circumstances,” said James Katsiaficas, an attorney at Perkins Thompson who has been hired to advise the commission.

Norris is disappointed that a recall could not happen and believes city residents should have the right to recall any elected official.

“I maintain that attempting a recall and removal of Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef from the Charter Commission is morally justified and called for, but I also respect our laws and the limits they dictate,” Norris said.

Sheikh-Yousef’s comments have been condemned by Jennings, Mayor Kate Snyder, City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. The comments also prompted several letters to the editor from concerned residents.

However, she also has received support from some residents, a former charter commission candidate and the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which is gearing up to push a slate of changes to the charter and formed a political action committee to support and oppose commission candidates. Her supporters say people who are upset should seek to understand why she would make those comments, rather condemning and trying to silence her.

Sheikh-Yousef did not respond to several interview requests over the last week to explain her position. She said in an email Wednesday that she would not speak to the newspaper and requested that the reporter no longer contact her. She also stood by her previous statements and tweets.

She did not respond to a subsequent request to comment on the possible recall effort.

As an organizer for Black Lives Matter Portland, which is now called Black POWER, she called on the council to fire Jennings, arguing that his policies and budget priorities disproportionately harm people of color and low-income residents. She also has argued that the city manager position itself upholds a white supremacist system.

Her post was liked and shared with an apparent endorsement by Stewart-Bouley, who earned 65 percent of the vote in the three-way race for District 1.

But Stewart-Bouley said in an interview Thursday that she deleted her retweet the following day, when people interpreted it as an endorsement. She said she has no problem with Jennings, who plans to step down next summer. Instead, she said her tweet was intended to celebrate a hard-won victory. And though she advocated for a stronger mayor position during the campaign, she said she is looking forward to listening to her constituents and studying each issue before voting on any recommended changes, which will need voter approval to take effect.

“I didn’t want anybody to think my retweet was an endorsement,” Stewart-Bouley said. “I would not have tweeted those things. I don’t think they serve a purpose and I think they are a distraction to the task ahead of us. We should be using these last weeks to get ourselves ready for the work we’re going to be doing for the next year and now we have this whole other thing going on.”

Questions about a recall come as the commission is set to be inaugurated and hold its first meeting on June 28. The first meeting will largely be organizational, including the inauguration of the 12 members, establishing rules of procedure and electing officers – a chair, vice chair and secretary – to lead the commission, according to a draft agenda sent to the commissioners-elect.

City Clerk Katherine Jones said in an email to commissioners-elect that Katsiaficas, the attorney with Perkins Thompson, will be advising the commission throughout the charter review process, beginning with Maine’s Right to Know Law, applicable conflict-of-interest provisions and state laws around charter commissions.

The commission also will set a date and time for an initial public hearing, which must take place within 30 days of its first meeting.

A time line for the commission is outlined in state statute.

The commission has nine months to prepare a preliminary report that includes the text of the charter or charter revision that it plans to submit to voters.

Three months later, a final report must be submitted to municipal officers. The final report must include the full text and explanation of the revision or revision(s) being put to voters; any additional comments from the commission; highlight major differences between the existing charter and the revised charter; and a written opinion by an attorney admitted to the Maine Bar that the revisions do not violate the U.S. or Maine constitutions or general laws of Maine.

Jones said the group’s deadlines would be March 8, 2022, for the nine-month report and June 8, 2022, for the 12-month report to the City Council. The recommended revisions would go to voters in November 2022. The commission would be disbanded July 8, 2022, she said.

The city council can grant the commission an extension of up to 24 months after its election.

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