The phrase “unintended consequences” is something that is often used in debates when policies are being made in a legislative body. However for citizen-initiated referendums the same term can be used.

The recent story told how the Green New Deal  ordinance prevented the state from creating a temporary shelter  to address homelessness and the arrival of asylum seekers from the southern border. The ordinance was a citizen initiated policy approved by the voters in 2020 that cannot be changed for five years. This hard and unfortunate lesson helps make the case for allowing the City Council to amend or to repeal voter-approved referendums as necessary by removing the five-year prohibition.

Section 9-46 of the Portland City Code prohibits any amendments or repeals to a voter approved referendum unless explicitly stated in the voter-approved ordinance for five years after adoption.

I find this to be troubling because the City Council is the legislative body that Portland voters generally trust to make laws for the betterment of our community. So when it comes to referendums, why does this trust disappear? Could it be that when this provision was adopted in 1968, policymakers were concerned that a City Council in the future might decide to overthrow the will of the voters by repealing a voter-approved referendums or to water down the intent of a voter-approved laws? I’m not sure of the answer to that, but in 2022, I believe it is time to reexamine this policy. Citizens could do this by putting this question to the voters at the ballot box with a referendum in the future.

The case for allowing the City Council to amend or repeal an ordinance adopted by voters has its benefits despite our knee jerk reaction that it may do more harm than good. One benefit could be allowing the City Council to act immediately if it is found that a voter-approved referendum violates state law, the Maine Constitution or U.S Constitution and the threat of legal action could be remedied with changes to the ordinance that still satisfies the intent of the voters, but avoid a lawsuit.

As we have seen before, voter approved referendums have been challenged in court with the minimum wage ordinance that led to taxpayer dollars being spent defending it. The City Council could also avoid the unintended consequences of preventing the city and state to move forward on initiatives that address issues in our community and are pressing such as homelessness, housing and public safety just to name a few. I also understand giving the City Council this tool could lead to abuse of it, but voters still retain the power by holding them accountable at the ballot box if it goes too far.

If we handcuff the Portland City Council, who we elected, preventing them from making changes to referendums for at least five years, we ultimately create situations that could harm us in the end, especially the most vulnerable in our community. The next time this bind occurs it may not be a Green New Deal policy that prevents a temporary shelter from being built, but something that could have life and death consequences that a future City Council has to wait five years to change. By then it would be too late.

— Special to the Press Herald

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.