Thirteen (13) ballot questions. A baker’s dozen of proposals that seek to make significant, lasting changes to the city of Portland. A ton of paper. An overwhelmed electorate. A city in “response mode.”

How did we get here? It’s the question we’ve asked ourselves most in recent weeks – and, conflicted about the format and discomfited by the sheer volume of the questions, we’ve asked many. Without getting too philosophical, let’s break it all down.

The Charter Commission came up with eight of the 13 questions on the ballot in Portland this fall, the numbered questions. Some of the proposed amendments to the city’s charter are pretty minor, with at least one referred to as a “bug fix.”

Others are indisputably major, like Question 2, which presents Portlanders with a new “strong mayor” city governance structure; and Question 5, which would give the school board the autonomy over its own budget that it desires.

The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America came up with four of the 13, the lettered questions, for one of which – a proposal to put limits on cruise ships, Question E – it has since abandoned its support. Two of the DSA’s questions can be categorized as “big fish”: Question C, which would impose fresh restrictions on landlords, and Question D, which would bring the minimum wage in Portland to $18 by 2025 and eliminate the tipped wage in the same period.

The 13th, Question A, is a question from a group of short-term rental operators who wish to defend existing local operators from corporate and absentee opportunists.


The Charter Commission amendments were forged gradually, if not painstakingly, and in the public eye. Subsequent agreement and disagreement among the commissioners and others also played out in the open.

The five lettered referendum questions, meanwhile, seemed to many of us to “burst from the head of Zeus, fully formed,” as Greg Kesich, this newspaper’s since-retired editorial page editor, wrote in July. Elected officials can’t change referendum ordinances for five years without going back to the voters. As we’ll explain in our endorsements, this reality also forces us to look at Questions A through E in a different light.

Over the past two weeks, the editorial board spent hours examining all 13; meeting with 15 individuals and seven groups, listening to arguments that helped us arrive at our positions.

Depending on your point of view, a referendum is either an elevated expression of democracy or evidence of its failure; the reflex of a frustrated electorate that sees nothing of itself in the day-to-day running of a city.

As referendum questions tend to, those being put to the people of Portland hammer a multitude of issues into blunt yes-no questions.

In every case, these questions contain measures vast, diffuse and worthy of issue-by-issue consideration. Voters want and deserve to have their feelings accurately expressed. The referendum model appeals to emotion but makes this outcome hard.


Some of the Charter Commission questions, too, are thickly layered. If Questions 2 or 5, for example, were the only ones on the ballot this time around, Portland voters would still have their work cut out for them.

Portland in 2022 has an array of serious problems in need of solutions. The city is experiencing sharp growing pains; it has been getting harder and harder for working-class people to live in for some time. City leaders need to be thinking of those people – lower-income, younger, or newly arrived – more than they are.

The mile-long ballot now facing citizens is a direct result of failure to arrest that trend; it represents the hard work of many people to try to bring creativity and reinvention to bear on those problems.

Our city’s elected and unelected officials have to take blame for allowing us to get to this point, and – whatever the outcome on Nov. 8 – they must begin taking urgent steps to reverse it.


QUESTION 1: Vote YES on preamble and land acknowledgment 


Institutional land acknowledgments are increasingly common across the state of Maine and that’s a positive and overdue development. We’re living on land stolen from Indigenous people – a fact we’re stating, restating and making more clear in a greater number of settings.

The addition of a land acknowledgment by local government is a small but meaningful gesture. Portland voters shouldn’t miss the opportunity to acknowledge the displacement of and harm to the Wabanaki people and improve public awareness in the process. 

On balance, any distant risk of opening the city to a land claim does not concern us. The lawyer working with the commissioners also advised that such a legal challenge was unlikely.

Question 1 also makes a set of edits to the charter’s preamble – adding references to the common good, government responsiveness and, importantly, public education – which we find to be broad, modernizing improvements that better reflect the spirit behind the document in 2022.

QUESTION 2: Vote NO on city governance 

The summary of Question 2 that appears on the ballot is 500 words long. We’ll do our best to summarize that summary here. The Charter Commission proposes the establishment of a new executive mayor, which would result in what is sometimes referred to as a “strong mayor” system of government. 


Question 2 removes the mayor from the City Council and gives the council the authority to remove or censure that new mayor. It changes the city manager role to one of chief administrator and it increases the number of City Council seats from nine to 12, with just three of those 12 seats “at large” or catering to the city as a whole. 

The question would increase mayoral, council and school board compensation, lift the number of members on the school board from five to nine and come up with a budget development process for the city budget that “involves input from as many Portland residents as possible.”    

Among the arguments in favor of this sweeping change is that it would ward off a damaging and restrictive culture of unilateralism in city governance by making the most powerful (the hired city manager, in the view of supporters of Question 2) less powerful, and by boosting city participation in the city budget process. Supporters believe it better fits a major city like Portland and that the expanded roster of councilors would improve constituents’ access to those councilors. 

Opponents say that vesting powers in an executive mayor allows the mayor to pull too many different strings. The cost of a growing government is unpalatable to opponents, who don’t believe that the accessibility argument is worth the price to the taxpayer. And there’s skepticism that, despite no fewer than four provisions by which the executive mayor could be removed, only the most rank corruption would lead to such an outcome.

The Westbrook City Council has been held up as a positive example of this form of government – it has an executive mayor. Westbrook is also very different from Portland.

While better accountability and accessibility are to be welcomed, the editorial board is concerned that the council may not thrive like this in practice. We’re cognizant of the risk of more councilors feeling more opposition to one another, affecting what should be that body’s final authority in this new system. 


We are generally of the mind that more collaboration and more joint oversight should be insisted on within the present frame. The abandonment of a system because it’s not working is one way out, not the only way out.

This extremely detailed and sophisticated proposal seems to us unlikely – unfortunately for the charter commissioners who poured time and energy into it – to click in the minds of the majority of Portland voters. The value of many of its aims notwithstanding, it is likely to be regarded as a move into the unknown, which it would be.

QUESTION 3: Vote YES on clean elections 

This question’s amendments come in two parts. If passed, Question 3 would establish a Clean Election Fund for the city, providing public campaign funds to qualified candidates for elected municipal offices, starting next year (candidates could opt in or out).

The new fund has to operate within three parameters: it must limit the amount of private funding a participating candidate can raise, be limited to candidates who meet certain eligibility criteria (the text of the question gives the example of “demonstrated public support” or “participation in a city-sponsored forum or voter education event”) and ensure all unused money is returned to the fund. 

The second part of Question 3 pertains to campaign finance reform, with new restrictions on how candidates – all candidates in citywide races – can raise money. The changes to the charter would: 


• Ban direct corporate contributions to any candidate for municipal office.

• Ban ballot question contributions or expenditures from any entity that is “substantially under foreign influence” (this is up to the City Council to define, and it’s worth noting that the commission’s attorney questioned this provision’s constitutionality in June).

• Require that all contributions to campaigns be reported to the city clerk and fed into a searchable online database of information from registration filings and campaign finance reports.

Taken together, the two halves of Question 3 stand to create a far more open, democratic and even political playing field in the city of Portland, something the editorial board is in favor of.

As it stands, all campaigning candidates must either have connections to capital or forge a relationship to donors at the risk of being beholden to those donors. The Clean Election Fund would offer a leg up to would-be candidates daunted by the fundraising burden, improving the diversity of local races. 

The Charter Commission cites the state’s Clean Election Act as a sound template on which to base the workings of the new fund, and we’re satisfied that it is.


The proposed reforms to campaign finance rules would rightly increase scrutiny and transparency of political fundraising and donations. Measures like these are the mark of mature and responsible local government and, if effective, will pay major dividends in the form of improved public trust, varied political races and more comprehensive public representation. 

QUESTION 4: Vote YES on proportional ranked-choice voting

An update that could well be interpreted as a correction to the charter, Question 4 would bring in the proportional ranked-choice voting method for “multiple seat” elections – like at-large school board and City Council seats – where more than one person is being elected.

The method was supported by the commissioners because they believe it is the best way of faithfully representing voters’ views. Ranked-choice voting, used in Portland for the first time in 2011, works well in cases with one victor and less well where a group could take up available seats.

The 2020-2022 charter commissioners themselves know a thing or two about how it can shake out; one of them, Patricia Washburn, has repeatedly pointed out that had proportional ranked-choice voting been in place for the commissioners’ race in 2021, she would not have won her seat. 

Washburn still supports this amendment, and so do we.


QUESTION 5: Vote NO on school board budget autonomy 

Among the most divisive questions on the ballot, this amendment to the charter would transfer responsibility for school budget adoption from the City Council to the school board

Under this new structure, the City Council could conduct a public hearing on what the school board proposes and issue a nonbinding recommendation on the budget to the school board. The school budget would be voted upon at a municipal school budget referendum.

Supporters of the question, who include the outgoing superintendent of Portland Public Schools and the chair of the school board, say that the existing council vote tends to be too conservative, money-wise. They also complain of what they say is a lack of understanding of schools’ needs by the City Council. Additionally, they point out that the council responsibility is not the norm in Maine. 

At the suggestion that to give the school board autonomy over the school budget would release the process from a vital set of checks and balances, supporters of Question 5 say that the fact that the school board is answerable to constituents is enough of a safeguard.

Then there’s a legal snag – a risk that the city could be sued over the (Maine State) constitutionality of the move. In order to justify the gamble, to open Portland taxpayers to the possibility of costly legal bills, Question 5 would need to come with enormous and obvious upsides.


It is our position that the current structure functions well enough. A lack of visibility into schools, weak appreciation of their evolving requirements and deficient collaboration between these two parties can surely be addressed in less intensive fashion.

QUESTION 6: Vote YES on Peaks Island Council 

The Peaks Island Council itself requested Question 6, which will codify the council by adding it to the charter itself. Right now, the Peaks Island Council only exists in statute that is subject to change by the City Council. 

“Our thinking was, right now we’re only in ordinance,” Peter Eckel, chair of the Peaks council, told this newspaper last month. “Twenty years from now, if the City Council gets irritated at the Peaks Island Council, they could write us out of existence by changing ordinance. Our thought was to formally recognize it in the city’s charter.”

It’s a good thought, bringing the island council closer to Portland (at times in recent history the two have felt quite far apart) and making it more secure. The most populous island in Casco Bay is a unique and highly valuable part of Portland and this amendment underscores that. 

Peaks’ chagrin at having been ignored by the Portland City Council in the past won’t be magically dislodged by a mere administrative change – that’ll take hard work, which Portland should be enthusiastic about doing.


Even then, we believe this is a appropriate repair to the charter and, at the very least, assuages the island council’s fear of being literally written out of existence. 

QUESTION 7: Vote YES on civilian police review board 

Already in existence in Portland is something known as the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, a body that was established in 2001. If Question 7 passes, the subcommittee will be replaced by the slightly more simply named Civilian Police Review Board, and this new board will have its own entry in the charter (the subcommittee is part of city code only). 

Portland is in the fortunate position of not having too many serious police force concerns. In its final report, the commissioners more or less positively characterized the track record of the city’s police department. Even if public trust and confidence are relatively high, however, we believe it’s right to arrange to sustain or improve on that. 

The new board would be made up of nine or more uncompensated civilians, appointed by the City Council. The new board is designed to be approachable to people who have concerns or complaints about the police – the idea is that people may be more inclined to reach out to a review board member in their community than to go to the police (the subject of the grievance). It joins an already-established group of avenues open to officers for redress.

The board may:


• Refer the complaints it receives to the Portland Police Department for investigation.

• Review the resulting reports from the department for due process issues (“including issues of fairness, thoroughness and objectivity”).

• Release its own findings based on the department report.

There is an additional question of resourcing; the charter commissioners identified two positions that would support the new board – a community liaison and a police liaison. Whether or not the City Council proceeds with these posts or assigns the work elsewhere will be up to the council. More resources on this would lead to greater transparency, an outcome that’s at the heart of Question 7. 

It’s a measure focused on expanding the information available to the public and, for that reason, we support it.

QUESTION 8: Vote YES on ethics commission and code of ethics


If passed, Question 8 will require the City Council to appoint a seven-member independent ethics commission and to adopt a code of ethics that the commission recommends. Whether or not or how the council pays these members is left up to the council.

The newly formed commission will have the power to “render advisory opinions on matters of city business and violations of public trust.” The code will not be legally binding, and any breaches or violations by city workers will result in professional consequences only.

The amendment provides for even more support on the ethics front: the new ethics commission can recommend that an “accountability officer,” a new job in city government, is hired to educate the public; to assist in dispute resolution on an advisory basis; and to train city officials on a minefield category: “ethical matters.”

While far from scintillating, this change introduces a guard against unscrupulousness and establishes a set of formal standards that we believe the council needs and can benefit greatly from. 




QUESTION A: Vote NO on an act to regulate short-term rentals in Portland 

This proposal would ban corporate operation of short-term rentals in Portland (rooms and units up for rent on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO for up to 30 days at a time). Specifically, it asks that operators live within a 20-mile radius of the city.

It would tighten short-term rental regulations that already exist in Portland; retain the existing cap for non-owner-occupied mainland units (400 units); protect existing local short-term rental operators; defend affordable and city-designated “workforce” housing units from being used as short-term rentals and defend renters from eviction by landlords who wish to convert their units into short-term rentals. 

Critics of this question, put forward by a group of short-term rental owners and operators under the Committee to Keep Portland Local, say that it is protectionist and benefits one small group, proposes solutions to problems that don’t exist in the city – and that it does nothing to alleviate our acute housing crisis. 

While the second part is true, Question A does not undertake to free up housing. It does attempt to protect the city from an influx of professional out-of-city short-term rental operators in the coming years which, in light of Portland’s ever-increasing magnetism and popularity, isn’t a distant or far-fetched prospect. Its provisions on eviction and affordable housing are sensible and fair.

Like it or hate it, the short-term rental plays an important role in tourism in 2022, a sector of utmost economic importance to Portland. As the stakes get higher and higher, it is prudent to think ahead, double down on existing regulation and remove the potential for corporate and absentee operators to siphon cash from the city. 


That being said, we believe these measures would be better shepherded through the City Council. It doesn’t sit well with us that one small group organized and persuasive enough to pull it off would receive some form of prize via referendum that other groups will never be able to secure for themselves.

QUESTION B: Vote NO on an act to reduce the number of short-term rentals in Portland

Question B, composed by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (as are Questions C, D and E), is designed to restore a block of roughly 350 housing units currently operating as short-term rentals to the Portland housing market.

The authors say that the initiative can return 350 units to the long-term rental market by lowering the cap to 1% of the rental housing market. In limiting short-term rentals to those that are owner-occupied, tenant-occupied or located in two-unit buildings occupied by the owner, Question B, by its nature, would keep out the predatory professional or commercial outside operators targeted by Question A. 

The initiative’s proposals to increase short-term rental registration fees, simplify fee structures, increase penalties and provide for the notification of neighboring residents (within 500 feet) when a short-term rental is registered make sense to us. But Question B goes a good deal further.

If we were certain that the proposal could add 350 housing units to the Portland housing market tomorrow morning, we’d advocate for it to pass. Of the more than 800 short-term rentals registered in the city, 110 are on the islands. The inclusion of island properties by Question B has alarmed some people for whom ownership of an island property, in some cases handed down generation to generation – a unique element of island life – can only be afforded with the supplementary income earned by renting it.


We share in the concern voiced by islanders and others that the average island property is incompatible for conversion to a marketable long-term rental because of either its seasonal character, its location or its luxury nature.

Like each of the questions on the ballot in Portland, Question B involves a big balancing act. On one hand, we have a relatively small volume of potential housing that could be returned to an incredibly tight and prohibitive local housing market. On the other hand, we have the potential elimination of an important income source to hundreds of Portland households – and the island catch. Further refinement and study will be beneficial.

Our housing crisis is deeply entrenched and its effects on the most vulnerable people in our community are pernicious. While we agree that we need all the help we can get, we’re unconvinced that the amount and type of housing Question B might yield justifies the placing of limits on an engine of tourism and an increasingly valuable part of the income mix for local people.

QUESTION C: Vote NO on protection of tenants in Portland 

While we ultimately recommend a NO vote on Question C, it is important to note that the editorial board unreservedly supports the following elements of it.

• The requirement for the lease termination and rent increase notices to increase to 90 days. In a market as cutthroat as Portland’s has become, this is an eminently reasonable change that formalizes a level of respect for and protection of tenants.


• The reduction of rental application deposits to one month’s rent. This is an appropriate limit on increasingly creative and predatory charging structures that should not continue unchecked.

• The prohibition of application fees – again, this is the right thing to do. Climbing application fees are a ridiculous racket that, combined with heavy deposit requirements, are prohibitive to tenants without the ability to absorb their expense.

This is where we run into some difficulty on waving through the package as a whole. Question C is a relatively numbers-heavy ordinance. It undertakes, for example, to limit a landlord’s standard annual rent increase to 70 percent of the change in the Consumer Price Index in the Greater Boston Metro Area – the allowable increase is now set at 100 percent. It sets a $25,000 fee for condo conversions – where a rental unit changes to a private, occupant-owned unit. 

Question C also seeks to “discourage no-cause evictions” by limiting the 5 percent rent increase to voluntary turnovers, where leases end and restart on the tenant’s terms. The full text of Question D spans 17 pages, capturing far more than we have space to outline. 

Make no mistake: The precarity of Portland’s residential rental market and the power imbalance between landlord and tenant require urgent attention. The city needs to be pragmatic in introducing terms and conditions that measure up to the challenge.

We wholeheartedly support the drive to protect renters. But the rent control aspect of the question – an increase on a fairly sound limit – strikes us as incompatible with the supercharged nature of Portland’s economy and the potential for volatility that requires flexibility over the next five years. We’re also mindful that rent control can prioritize people who already have housing over those who have yet to secure it, hurting supply.


In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping the City Council from acting on fees, deposits and lease termination without delay.

QUESTION D: Vote NO on an act to eliminate the tipped credit wage and increase the minimum wage 

This question would have Portland bring the minimum wage up to $18 by 2025. In the same timeframe, it would also eliminate the sub-minimum tipped credit wage – that is, the ability of employers to pay tipped workers less than minimum wage, providing that minimum wage is reached with the help of the tipping public. 

The ordinance does nothing to stop or stand in the way of tipping. 

The ordinance would also provide an $18 minimum wage for workers currently not receiving the minimum wage, including taxi drivers and other ride-hailing services, personal shoppers, delivery workers and government workers. It would also create a Department of Fair Labor Practices to ensure wage and worker safety laws are enforced. 

Citywide, there are about 20,000 minimum-wage workers who could benefit greatly from this increase. But Question D has caused understandable consternation among the business community, with employers fearful of its impact on their bottom line or their prospects of survival. 


Here’s how we see it: The tipped credit wage benefits businesses in hospitality and other select sectors, which effectively receive subsidies from the public. It’s an outmoded American peculiarity – and it’s one that scores of Portland businesses are built on. 

The decision to include the tipped wage in this question stops us from having the discussion we want to have. 

While some members of the board expressed reservations about an increase, the lifting of the standard minimum wage to $18 is something we are mostly in favor of. Yes, it’s high and it’s bold, but those of us in favor are of the mind that Portland can afford it and we understand what the proponents tell us: that $18 wasn’t pulled out of thin air. 

The cost of living is punishing minimum-wage workers, many of whom have some of our community’s most bruising jobs. All across town, job openings cannot be filled. An improved minimum wage would go some way toward addressing that – hopefully, by another route, it will.

Some tipped bar and restaurant workers are concerned that if the public understands $18 an hour is being paid, tipping will plummet. We believe in the contemporary consumer’s capacity to carry on tipping. The risk of the rise of the automatic service charge, cited by some opponents to the question, also strikes us as a red herring.

It is the destabilizing effect that the elimination of the tipped wage will have on businesses and longstanding business models that stands in the way of us supporting Question D. 


It is our optimistic conviction that, where $18 fits the bill, the city will get to $18 another way.

QUESTION E: Vote NO on limitations on cruise ships

This question’s fraught journey allows us to come at the referendum process from another angle. Question E, with “congestion and pollution” in its crosshairs, would have limited disembarking passengers to a total of no more than 1,000 people per day from 2025 onward. According to the cost estimates released by the mayor’s office, it was to be the most expensive of the initiatives.

Last month, the Maine DSA said that a compromise reached with the International Longshoremen’s Association and the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council meant it would withdraw its support of Question E. As a result, no party is advocating for the question (alas, we’ll still see it on the ballot).

The compromise, “An Act to Reduce Cruise Ship Emissions and Expand Good Paying Jobs on the Working Waterfront,” now goes to Portland City Council. 

The DSA has said it believes the compromise – which proposes the use of shore power (meaning ships can hook up to the power grid and turn their idling engines off while docked), electrical power surcharges charged per disembarking passenger and the establishment of a task force that will study cruise ships’ effects on Portland and make recommendations to the council – is an improvement on the provisions of Question E.

Without the referendum question, would the conversation have been started and the compromise been reached? We can’t say. 

While having a phantom question on the ballot is messy and undesirable, the collaboration and will to find another way, one that brings the City Council back into the picture, is a fine outcome. Indeed, it’s a success story that could and should probably be applied to elements of other questions should those questions fail. 

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.