Fair Elections Portland has filed a second lawsuit against the city over its 2019 decision to reject a ballot question about a public financing program for municipal candidates.

The complaint will continue the legal battle that has been going on for more than two years, even as a charter commission also is studying the issue.

“The people of Portland deserve the chance to vote on this measure. They followed all the legal requirements and there is tremendous public support for this measure,” John Brautigam, an attorney for Fair Elections Portland, said in a news release. “We are going back to court to protect their right, and that of others who care about democracy. We refuse to let the city’s obstruction be the last word.”

The group filed the complaint Wednesday in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland. Jen Thompson, interim corporation counsel in Portland, said Thursday that she did not have any comment on the new lawsuit. The city will eventually file a response in court.

The referendum from Fair Elections Portland would have created a clean elections program, similar to the ones that can be used for gubernatorial and state legislative races. Such programs provide taxpayer money to finance campaigns that limit the amount of private donations. The state program requires candidates to collect a certain number of initial donations to show evidence of support in order to qualify for public funding.

In 2019, advocates for the Portland measure collected more than 6,800 valid signatures to get the question on the ballot. They say clean elections programs reduce the cost barriers to running for office, and public financing allows candidates to focus on talking to voters instead of fundraising.

But the Portland City Council decided not to put the proposal to a citywide vote. A city attorney said the question would require Portland to pay for the clean election program, which would be a major change and would have to be reviewed by a charter commission. The council asked voters whether they wanted to create such a commission, and voters approved that concept in 2020. That commission is currently studying the proposal.

Fair Elections Portland filed its first lawsuit against the city in 2019. After losing in the lower court, the group appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which directed the city to explain the rationale for its decision. The City Council, whose current members mostly took their seats after the 2019 decision, voted unanimously last month to approve a statement of facts that reiterated that the issue needed to be studied by a charter commission.

The complaint challenges both the original decision by the City Council and the findings of fact approved in October. Brautigam said Fair Elections Portland needed to file the second complaint to get the issue back in front of the court, and the group wanted to keep litigating in part because there is no way to know what the outcome of the charter commission review will be.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include 15 Portland residents.

“We support anyone else who is moving toward the same goal, but we are not going to roll over to the city’s continued obstruction of our constitutional rights,” Brautigam said in an interview.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this story.


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