A campaign sign at the intersection of Deering Avenue and Congress Street in Portland appears to target the upcoming rent control referendum on behalf of the Committee to Improve Rent Control. However, the signs were created by a Brunswick resident who says he is using satire to oppose Question A. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

You’ve seen them around Portland.

In Longfellow Square. At the bottom of the hill on State Street. And on Congress Street.

Campaign signs are taking aim at the upcoming referendum to change Portland’s rent control ordinance. They’re sparking debate – and some confusion – as the June 13 election approaches.

“Think rents are too low? On June 13th, you can help landlords raise them!” reads one sign. “Rent control works better for everyone when landlords make more money!” says another.

“Stop big tenant!” says a third sign.

Written on the bottom of the signs, in bold red letters is the name of the Committee to Improve Rent Control, with the word “improve” often – but not always – appearing in quotations.


The man behind the signs, Jack O’Brien, said they’re meant to be a satirical way of opposing Question A.

O’Brien said he grew up in Portland and lived there for many years before moving to Brunswick, and he is still deeply invested in issues that impact the city. O’Brien also was involved in previous campaigns in Portland in 2017 and 2020 in support of rent control.

“The goal of the signs is to clearly satirize what (landlords) are trying to do, which is to imagine that somehow they are the victims here rather than the perpetrators of large-scale economic violence,” O’Brien said.


Not everyone sees the joke.

“I think they’re confusing and I’ve been called by people asking if they’re signs we made and put up,” said Brit Vitalius, who is the chair of the actual Committee to Improve Rent Control and president of the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, both of which are behind Question A.


“I guess I’m curious how this is clarifying the issues for people who are going to vote,” Vitalius said.

One sign also includes inaccurate campaign finance information, he said.

A pedestrian walks by a campaign sign created by Jack O’Brien, who said they’re meant to be a satirical way of opposing Question A. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Vitalius said he asked the city if the signs are illegal because they use the committee’s name. “They looked into it and said they’re not illegal in so far as they’re free speech and they don’t say vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” Vitalius said. “I don’t know if there’s much we can do about it.”

The Press Herald confirmed that campaign finance information on two of the signs includes incorrect contribution amounts.

O’Brien was out of town Thursday and referred questions about campaign finance to a friend who worked with him on the signs and who said the information was corrected Thursday afternoon after a reporter asked about it.

David Bergeron, chief strategy officer for Bush Watson, one of the city’s largest landlords, said in a statement Thursday that the signs are “misleading and inaccurate.”


“In the end, we’re confident that voters will weigh the merits of Question A and see that it is a commonsense fix for all of Portland,” Bergeron said.

The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Livable Portland campaign, which worked to pass rent control updates last fall and is campaigning against the latest referendum, was not involved in the signs, said Rose DuBois, the campaign chair. O’Brien said he is a member of the DSA but is not active.

Dubois said the DSA understands the reasoning behind the signs. “If Question A passes, rents will go up and people won’t be able to live in their homes,” DuBois said. “So I think they’re understandable.”

Question A seeks to eliminate the 5% cap on a rent increase when someone voluntarily leaves an apartment.

Supporters say it will prevent widespread annual rent increases because landlords will be able to raise rents by a larger amount when a tenant moves out and will not feel obligated to take advantage of the limited annual increases currently allowed.

In addition to the 5% cap on voluntary turnover, landlords also are allowed annual increases of 70% of the rate of inflation as well as additional increases in a limited number of scenarios, most of which require rent board approval. The total increase per year can never exceed 10% on rent-controlled units.


Critics of Question A, meanwhile, say the proposed change will only lead to price gouging on vacant units and will make it harder for working-class people and families to afford apartments that open up.

A campaign sign near the Western Prom in Portland appears to target the upcoming rent control referendum on behalf of the Committee to Improve Rent Control, though its creator says it’s actually satire. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe


Portland Elections Administrator Paul Riley said the signs comply with city and state laws.

Because the signs appear to have cost less than $500, information about who paid for and authorized them is not required, he said.

Riley said the signs also appear to meet state requirements for communications posted in a public way. Those requirements include the sign owner’s name, address and the date when the sign was placed in the public right of way.

That information is written on the back of several of O’Brien’s signs identified by a reporter.


“It is also our conclusion that these signs are compliant and fully protected speech under the First Amendment,” Riley said in an email.

Riley said there “has not been much concern” about the signs reported to the city, though some people on social media have expressed confusion and questioned their legality.

“I’ve already seen several people think it’s a legitimate sign from CIRC,” wrote one person who posted in a thread about the signs on Reddit. “Deceptive election practices are a very serious business, and while I don’t want to chill free speech, I do think that disinformation should be countered.”

“I saw another one of theirs and it took a second for me to realize it was satire,” wrote another user.

O’Brien said the signs are meant to be satirical, not misleading – a point he said is highlighted with the use of quotation marks and via an Instagram account, @aneirons, that is affiliated with the campaign.

If the signs are confusing to some people, that means they’re working.

“Satire is only satire when some people don’t get the joke,” he said.

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