Portland city councilors decided to press pause on a proposal to change the citizen-initiated referendum process Monday night.

The council voted 6-3 on a motion from Councilor Regina Phillips to indefinitely postpone a proposed package of changes being considered for the November ballot. Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Roberto Rodriguez and Pious Ali voted against postponing.

The proposed changes included limiting citizens’ initiatives to the November ballot, requiring a fiscal impact statement, shortening the time the council must wait before it can make changes to an ordinance approved by referendum, and other items.

“I want to pause this indefinitely and maybe have a committee so we can have some community input,” Phillips said. “We’re in no hurry and we have other things on our plate.”

The move came after the council received dozens of emails and letters submitted as public comment and heard from about a dozen people who spoke Monday night. Many of both said they oppose the changes proposed by the council.

Wes Pelletier, co-chair of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has put several citizen-initiated referendums on the ballot in recent years, encouraged the council to reject the proposal and not send it to voters.


He called the proposal “tone deaf” and said the council should be spending time on more pressing issues, like wages for workers. If changes are to be made to the referendum process, they should be made collaboratively with the establishment of a task force, Pelletier said.

“Let’s do it and talk about what should be changed,” he said.

Sacha Kiesman also urged the council to reject the changes and said recent referendums have contributed to greater protections for residents on issues like housing. “Restriction of the referendum process would restrict these important protections,” Kiesman said.

Eamonn Dundon, director of advocacy for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the council should send the proposal to voters. He said recent referendums have contributed to political divisions and that changes – including some beyond what the council proposal calls for – are needed.

“A vote in favor of this proposal will allow Portland citizens to weigh in on the referendum process,” Dundon said. “I kindly ask you to provide citizens with that opportunity.”

The use of citizen-initiated referendums in Portland has proliferated in recent years, with voters just last November weighing five different citizen-initiated questions plus eight referendum questions from the Charter Commission.


Snyder told the council and residents Monday that she has gotten feedback from the public in recent months about whether there should be changes to the process, including whether the number of signatures needed to get something on the ballot (currently 1,500) should be raised, and whether the amount of time the council must wait to make changes to an ordinance passed by referendum (currently five years) should be changed.

“This is the City Council after four months’ worth of process, including two workshops, saying this is the product of some City Council work and do we think this is the right landing place to send questions to voters about this process,” Snyder said.

Councilors expressed varying degrees of support for the proposal presented Monday and while some said they supported aspects of it, most ultimately said more time was needed. Some also expressed frustration with the process.

“For me, I don’t think this is a priority at all,” said Councilor Victoria Pelletier. “I still can’t believe we’re here. I’m not in favor of restructuring the citizens’ initiative process, especially if we’re not actually getting to the root of why people feel unheard and unsupported by their local government.”

In other news Monday, a proposal to raise the wages for employees of two police department unions drew heated debate, with some councilors saying they couldn’t support a 14.5% increase.

The proposal was considered as part of broader budget discussions in which the City Council approved a $261.8 million general fund budget. It ultimately passed 6-3 with councilors Phillips, Pelletier and April Fournier opposed to both of two items the council voted on for the wage increases.


Phillips said she was struggling to support the increases. “I am not against the police department whatsoever and I do not want to defund the police,” Phillips said. But she said she would rather see two years of subsequent 7% raises and a plan for how to improve engagement with the public and communities of color in the meantime.

“The reason I wanted 7% this year and 7% next year is because I’m still really uncomfortable about what happened April 1,” Phillips said, referring to a neo-Nazi march through downtown.

“For me, I cannot forget about what happened April 1,” she said. “I also struggle with the idea that because of this we can just give a 14.5 percent raise. I know it’s supposed to go to recruitment, but it’s still a raise.”

Councilor Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, countered Phillips’ arguments, saying the raise is needed to boost recruitment and retention in a department hard hit by staffing shortages.

“The wage increase was discussed and proposed as an answer to the economic reality (that) we have 27 or 28 vacancies in the police department,” he said. “We’re not recruiting, and when we lose talent, it’s not the first-year officer that goes, it’s the officer with eight or nine years of experience, and that’s a real deficit.”

The proposal brings wages from a current range of $25.33 to $32.54 per hour for officers, depending on years of experience, to a range of $29 to $37.26 per hour. Amended wage scales were also approved for detectives, court officers, superior officers and other jobs.


The wage increases were not the only time Monday that the police department prompted debate by the council. The council also heard an update from City Manager Danielle West about the response to the April 1 rally that prompted some councilors to call on the city to do more.

West said the city has come up with recommendations from an after action report that include implementing First Amendment training for certain positions, considering ways to further document incidents of hate and bias and implementing new responses to First Amendment activity.

“I wonder what our plan is as councilors and what our role is as people are looking at us to be in the know, to keep them safe and come up with alternative ideas and solutions so everyone can feel they can walk around freely in Portland and not be terrorized,” Pelletier said. “I think we have a lot more to do as a council.”

In other news Monday, the council voted unanimously to confirm Mike Murray, who has served as interim director of the Department of Public Works since 2021, to the permanent position.

“He’s done an excellent job the last couple of years, and in some pretty trying times,” West said. “He’s also been able to think very economically and creatively to come up with solutions to issues.”

The council also voted unanimously to set a public hearing date of Aug. 14 for a citizen-initiated proposal to exclude landlords with nine or fewer units from the city’s rent control ordinance and to indefinitely postpone a staff proposal for changes to the rent control ordinance.

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