Phew! Election season is over. No more TV ads, no more lawn signs, no more vitriol … I hope.

This fall I helped to run an almost comically small grassroots effort (total funds raised: $245) to oppose Question B, which would have placed new and significant limits on short-term rentals in Portland, including on the islands, where our effort was forged. Question B did not pass; our island communities are protected for now. But what an experience it has been.

My overall takeaway is similar to what Councilor Pious Ali said in a recent letter (“Letter to the editor: We need more respect in Portland politics,” Nov. 11) – Portland’s political world is becoming too vitriolic and too segmented. The city’s referendum process is part of the reason.

Portland’s referendum process is dangerously flawed. Getting a referendum on the ballot in Portland requires far fewer signatures, proportionally, than is the case in most other towns. And, if a referendum passes, the resulting ordinance can not be changed for five years. Even more concerning is the result of that flawed process: too much of Portland’s law is being written without sufficient input and by people without expertise.

A close look at Question B illustrates this danger. Question B was written by the Portland branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group of activists whose overall goals are hard to disagree with: a fair economic system, affordable housing, better accountability among city leaders, a more fair criminal justice system. While I opposed the DSA in this battle, and I disagree with some of their tactics, I agree with many of their goals. But, as is true of most of us who are not in government, DSA members are not experts in crafting legislation. They do not know the minute details that impact most city ordinances.

Regarding Question B, one glaring mistake was including the islands. Over the course of this campaign, I learned that the authors of Question B had not done the research needed before they wrote the question. Some of the cottages on Peaks Island, and almost all on Little Diamond and Great Diamond, are seasonal; the city shuts off their water from October to April and they are often unheated. The DSA’s goal was to create more affordable housing. But an uninsulated, unheated summer cottage with no running water in the middle of Casco Bay is not about to become year-round housing, affordable or not.


As frustrated as I was with the DSA this fall, I do not fault them. Instead, I fault our referendum system. Short-term rental legislation, similar to rent control or other housing legislation is, at its core, zoning law. Zoning law impacts many constituencies and requires a precise balance of rights and needs among tenants, homeowners, neighbors and the city at large. The required word-smithing is enough to put all but the most dedicated legal expert to sleep. Zoning law should not be written by referendum. Zoning law should be written by the legislative bodies we elect.

Groups from all parts of the political spectrum have taken advantage of Portland’s flawed referendum process to propose law that is at best incomplete and at worst unjust. The fault for this flawed legislation does not lie only at the feet of these groups. The fault ultimately lies with the City Council. It can be difficult for groups with little power, such as tenants, to be heard by the council. It is easy to understand why those groups look to activist organizations for help.

The solution is to elect councilors who represent all of Portland, and for the council to reach out to all constituencies impacted by legislation to create just law. The clean elections and ranked-choice voting changes approved last week will make the council more accountable. But the City Council must take further steps to show Portlanders who are fed up with having to make law by referendum that they will step up and listen to all constituents, even those with limited financial or political power.

The City Council should immediately take up the referendum process. Portland should require at least 4,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot and it should eliminate the “no change for five years” rule. The challenge of leading a city as diverse as Portland is that there are few issues on which most Portlanders agree. It is possible that in reforming the referendum system, Portland’s City Council may have found just such an issue.

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