Two years ago, over 8,000 Portland residents signed a petition in support of a charter amendment for the public funding of municipal elections. Dozens of Portlanders volunteered their time to collect these signatures – the largest local petition drive in Maine history.

But two years later, Portland voters have still not been given the chance to vote on the measure.

A majority of the 2019 City Council voted to keep it off the ballot. Deferring to the advice of corporation counsel Danielle West, they decided that the measure required the calling of a full charter commission.

But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. After Fair Elections Portland sued the city for blocking the measure, the court issued a unanimous opinion last month that cast doubt on the city’s rationale: The court stated that the city provided no factual basis for its 2019 decision and that there is nothing apparent on the face of the proposed charter amendment that would require a charter commission.

The court sent the case back to the city with instructions to adequately justify its decision or place the measure on the ballot as the law requires. Now that the state supreme court has spoken, it is time for city councilors to exercise the promise of leadership for which each was elected.

Just a few weeks ago, Portland voters went to the polls to elect a charter commission with fresh ideas about transforming local government to ensure more openness and transparency, and to allow historically marginalized voices to be heard in City Hall.

It is no coincidence that calls for fundamental change are growing more intense. There is a widespread perception that city staff views its role as reigning in democratic excesses and progressive change rather than letting the democratic give-and-take play out.

The City Council is now at a fork in the road: One path would honor the letter and spirit of the law, and demonstrate that the council hears and listens to the manifest intention of thousands of their constituents, by simply placing the proposal on the November 2021 ballot.

The other path – continuing to block the measure from the ballot – shows that this council will continue to defer to unelected staff on fundamental matters of the democratic process – even after the current corporation counsel’s advice has repeatedly been proven wrong.

Weakness in leadership here would prove costly, wasteful, and divisive. It would also consume more scarce resources in continued litigation.

More fundamentally, it would demonstrate a disturbing disregard for basic tenets of local democracy. This is no longer just about how we fund elections; fundamental principles are at stake.

Does the will of 8,000 voters matter? Is the constitutional right to amend the local charter just an illusion? Who really governs?

When it comes to the big issues, does local democracy amount to anything more than a farcical drama in which city employees pull the strings?

This summer the new City Council has a narrow opportunity to redeem its government in the eyes of constituents. Will it rise to the occasion?

Time is short. The City Council must act soon to print ballots for the November election. Fortunately, all that is needed is a simple decision to choose the right path.

There is still time. We will soon see whether the new council has the political will.


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