The Portland City Council is slated to discuss possible changes to the city’s referendum process Monday, just a week after voting to put the latest citizen-initiated referendum out to voters in June.

A workshop is scheduled for 5 p.m. and will be held remotely via Zoom.

In an email to councilors earlier this month, Mayor Kate Snyder said several of them have contacted her about changing the referendum rules and she has been working with city staff to explore the process and timing. Any changes must be approved by voters.

“Although timing is tight, we have been able to develop a thoughtful process to place a question for voters’ consideration on the June ballot, if that’s the will of the Council,” Snyder said in the email, which she shared Friday with the Press Herald.

The council is expected to look Monday at changes in a few possible areas including the signature requirement to get on the ballot, the timetable by which the council is allowed to make changes to citizen-initiated ordinances and the inclusion of a fiscal impact statement – something that is not currently required.

The discussion comes a week after several councilors expressed a desire for change during a debate over a citizen-initiated referendum from the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine.


It also follows a busy November election in which voters weighed 13 referendums, including eight from the city’s Charter Commission and five citizen-initiated questions.

“The referendum process is a wonderful process, but it can’t be the go-to de facto policy tool,” Councilor Andrew Zarro, who supports looking at changes, said Friday. “It’s getting impossible for us to legislate and impossible for staff to implement everything.”

Zarro said he wants to look at bringing Portland’s process more in line with the state’s, including by changing the threshold of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot.

The city currently requires 1,500 signatures from registered voters, while the state requires 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. That number is currently 67,682.

Zarro said he is also interested in making sure a percentage of signatures come from each of the city’s five council districts and exploring whether the city could prohibit paid signature gatherers.

“For me that is a huge issue of concern,” he said. “If people can be paid to get signatures, it really changes this process. So I want to discuss that and see what possibilities there are.”


City ordinances adopted via a citizen-initiated referendum cannot be changed by the council for five years, except through another referendum, which is another thing councilors may look to change. At the state level, any law that is adopted via referendum can be amended through the regular legislative process without a waiting period.

Councilor Pious Ali said Friday that he also supports the review. He acknowledged that the council’s policy-making process is slow – a criticism often cited during the referendum process – but it’s intentionally set up that way to allow for feedback and engagement.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what recommendations corporation counsel will make to us, and then hopefully we will take public comment, fine-tune it and bring it before the people of Portland for them to approve it or disapprove it,” Ali said.

Snyder said the council is expecting to receive a draft of possible changes Monday and will aim to hold a first read on April 10 followed by a public hearing and council action on April 24.

The June 13 ballot is already expected to include the annual referendum on the school budget as well as the citizen-initiated referendum from the Rental Housing Alliance, which seeks to remove a 5% cap on the rent increase that is allowed after a tenant voluntarily vacates an apartment.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Rental Housing Alliance, said Friday that he didn’t have any thoughts on whether the process should be changed unless a specific proposal should arise from the council.


The referendum from the alliance seeks to change the city’s rent control ordinance, which was originally implemented via a citizen-initiated referendum in 2020 and updated via another referendum in 2022. Both of those proposals were brought forward by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Rose DuBois, the DSA’s campaign committee chair, said the group hasn’t discussed any specific changes to the referendum process but they would be open to it.

“We haven’t talked about anything specific, but I know keeping direct democracy is really important to us and we definitely don’t think they should get rid of referendums,” DuBois said.

If changes are made, DuBois said it would be good for the council to pair them with steps to make it easier for more people to run for office, like raising the pay of councilors.

“It’s hard to run for office and it takes up a lot of time,” DuBois said. “That limits who can run for office, so then people have to do things like turn to referendums.”

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