Hadda Campbell votes at Deering High School on Tuesday, when voters considered another citizen-initiated referendum on rent control. The proposal was rejected but another is expected to be on the ballot this fall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Just as Portland voters put the latest citizen-initiated referendum behind them Tuesday, the city is preparing for the possibility of yet another rent control question on the November ballot.

Voters also could be asked this fall if they want to change the referendum process – something the City Council is looking at in response to a proliferation of ballot questions in recent years and concerns that the current rules governing the procedure aren’t working.

“We realize there have been a lot of questions that have come forth about the citizen initiative process itself, the details of it, and that there’s been kind of a push to say, ‘You guys should really look at this ordinance,’ ” Mayor Kate Snyder said.

The council is expected to get a first look at a proposal on June 26.

It’s still being finalized, Snyder said, but will be based on feedback from two workshops this spring. If approved, the changes could go to voters in November.

At the same time, the city clerk’s office on Monday issued a pair of petitions to a group seeking to put referendums on rent control and short-term rentals on the November ballot.


The organizer, Betty Caton, said Wednesday that the group has dropped the short-term rental proposal but already has gathered the 1,500 signatures needed for the rent control question to make the ballot.

It would exempt landlords with nine or fewer units from the city’s rent control ordinance, which already has some exemptions in it, including for landlords with two to four units who also live in a unit in the building.

“I think everybody in Portland is tired of the referendum process,” Caton said. “But it resonates with people when you talk about small landlords. … They’re being held to an ordinance that, as it is, makes things very difficult.”


The clerk’s office had not received the signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, said Paul Riley, the elections administrator. He said they would need to be turned in by June 22 to qualify for the November ballot and give the office time to certify the petitions and place the proposals on the July council agenda.

The question would add to more than a dozen citizen-initiated questions that have gone to Portland voters in the last three years, including a proposal that was rejected 67% to 33% Tuesday to eliminate a cap on rent increases landlords can seek when tenants move out.


In November, voters considered five citizen-initiated questions: on cruise ships, rent control, the minimum wage and two on short-term rentals. Only one of those – Question C, which updated the rent control ordinance – passed.

The ballot also was stacked with eight other referendums put up by the Charter Commission, six of which passed.

Many have argued the referendum process is necessary and used frequently because the City Council is too slow to act, though some residents also have said it’s too easy to get questions on the ballot and there should be reforms.

Snyder said the proposal that’s being finalized will likely suggest reducing the time the council must wait to change an ordinance passed by referendum (currently set at five years), require citizen-initiated questions to be on November ballots when more people vote, and mandate questions include fiscal impact notes – something that is required for referendums at the state level.

Councilors also have looked at whether the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot – currently 1,500 – should be changed, but the mayor said there didn’t seem to be support for that at the workshops.

“That was one thing I thought was important, but I would say a majority of the council didn’t,” Snyder said. “What will come forward is the best representation of a majority of councilors’ feedback during workshops.”


Councilor Roberto Rodriguez agrees that citizen-initiated proposals should include fiscal impact notes and that more work should be done to ensure referendum language reflects any associated staffing and operational needs.

But he also sees referendums as a valuable tool. “I don’t intend to limit its use or take it away, I just want to make it more effective,” he said.


Caton also is a member of the Committee to Keep Portland Local, which brought forward a referendum in November to prohibit corporate and non-local ownership of short-term rentals.

She said the group decided to drop its most recent effort to change the short-term rental rules because they decided a better path would be working with the council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee.

The rent control question is different because it was first approved by and has been amended via citizen-initiated referendums, Caton said.


She said she is not a landlord, but other members of her group, which does not yet have a name, are and she also has friends who are small landlords.

“(The current ordinance) may make sense for someone with 50, 60 or 70 units,” Caton said. “They can spread out costs. We chose those with nine and under because they’re the ones really struggling with the rent control ordinance we currently have.”

The proposal is likely to face opposition from the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which wrote the rent control ordinance in 2020 and updates in November.

“Unfortunately, (Caton’s group thinks) the answer to the housing crisis is to make it more expensive for tenants to live here,” said Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and member of the DSA. “That’s what this referendum would do.”

The DSA also was behind several other citizen initiatives in 2020 and put four of the five citizen initiatives that went to voters in November 2022 on the ballot. Strimling is open to changing the process, but said any changes should be focused on making referendums more effective, as opposed to trying to limit them. He suggested forming a commission to get broader feedback.

He said the council could look at requiring more financial disclosures, taking away the ability to adopt and immediately amend citizen-initiated proposals before they go to the ballot, and putting the referendum process in the city charter rather than having it as an ordinance.

Caton supports the council’s possible referendum plans. “This is the process we have in Portland, and we would like to see it all handled by the City Council, or at least I personally would, but when you have the limitations that you have, then you have to work within that process,” she said.

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