Groups forming on both sides of Portland referendums

·8 min read

Aug. 15—With the November election less than three months away, groups in Portland are gearing up for high-stakes campaigns and big spending for and against more than a dozen city ballot questions.

As of Wednesday, five ballot question committees had registered with the city, including Enough is Enough, whose officers include a former city councilor and a local landlord fed up with just such referendums.

The Maine Democratic Socialists of America's Livable Portland campaign, which is behind four of the referendums that will appear on ballots Nov. 8, has formed a committee, as has Fair Elections Portland, which is in favor of the Charter Commission's clean elections proposal to create a structure to publicly finance candidates for local office.

The primary purpose of ballot question committees is to influence voting on ballot questions, and they must register with the city within seven days of making expenditures that total more than $5,000 to initiate or influence a campaign. But some of the groups that have registered for the November election said they did so in advance and have yet to spend or raise money. There is no cutoff date by which committees must form, so more could still be coming.

DSA FORMS COMMITTEE

The first committee to register with the city was the DSA's Livable Portland campaign, which filed paperwork shortly after submitting enough signatures to get four referendums on the ballot. The referendums focus on reducing the number of short-term rentals, protecting tenants, restricting the number of people who can disembark from cruise ships and raising the minimum wage to $18 per hour.

The committee's statement of purpose says it supports the four initiatives and opposes a competing referendum on short-term rentals submitted by Scott Ferris, a homeowner who operates a short-term rental unit in the city's Parkside neighborhood.

Wes Pelletier, campaign chair for DSA's Livable Portland and principal officer of the committee, said the Livable Portland campaign doesn't oppose some elements of the competing short-term rental proposal, such as a ban on short-term rentals by corporate and non-local operators or a ban on evicting tenants to immediately convert an apartment or home to a short-term rental.

But he said his group is opposed to a clause in Ferris' referendum that bars existing short-term rental operators from having their registrations revoked or renewals denied due to changes in city code pertaining to short-term rentals. Pelletier said Livable Portland wants fewer short-term rentals, and believes that such a clause would impede that effort.

"We think (short-term rentals) need to be heavily regulated and homes need to be returned to the long-term rental market," he said.

Chris Korzen, one of the authors of the proposal brought forward by Ferris and others, said the clause, which he called an "integrity provision," is intended to protect short-term rental operators who have made economic decisions based on their rentals from a sudden loss of the ability to rent them, and also to protect the city from lawsuits. Korzen said his group, which doesn't have a name, also intends to form a ballot question committee, though it has yet to do so.

"It's not going to change in any way the number of short-term rentals in the city," he said of the proposal he supports. "What it is intended to do is to make sure we have the structure in place to benefit people in Portland, not corporate owners or investors from away, and also to address concerns about eviction."

While the DSA hasn't raised or spent any money yet, according to an initial campaign finance report, Pelletier said his group expects the next few months to be busy.

"DSA is an organization nationally that puts a lot of stock in having a strong field presence, knocking on doors and bringing people in so they can get engaged with this process, not just the referenda process but with the civic process overall," he said.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Enough is Enough lists Edward Payne, a local landlord, as its principal officer and Nick Mavodones, a former city councilor, as treasurer. What does it oppose? Ballot measures.

Mavodones, who spent 24 years as a councilor before deciding not to seek reelection last year, said he still talks to a lot of city residents and hears their concerns about city governance via referendum.

In addition to the five citizen-initiated referendums going to voters this fall, the charter commission is proposing eight changes to the structure of city government that Portland voters will have to weigh in on.

"The sense I've heard from people, and I know others have too, is that people have had enough with all the referendum questions," Mavodones said. "That's what I hear over and over from people, 'Enough is enough.'"

His group, he said, is just getting organized and is working with a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm that has people on the ground locally. According to their initial campaign finance report, Enough is Enough has already amassed more than $30,000 in debts and obligations, including $5,000 owed to the Bernstein Shur legal firm and $25,000 to the D.C. firm, Cornerstone Government Affairs.

Mavodones said more details about the group and their work should be available soon. "The group is still coming together," he said. "It's a quick turnaround from the (City Council vote to put the questions on the ballot) the other night, but I think it will be a broad coalition."

COMPETING VIEWS ON TIPS FOR WORKERS

Two groups have formed with competing views on the DSA's proposal to raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2025 while at the same time eliminating the subminimum or tip credit wage.

Portland's minimum wage currently is $13 per hour and is scheduled to increase to $15 per hour by 2024.

But under state law and city ordinance, employers of tipped service workers may take a "tip credit" of up to 50 percent of the minimum wage in meeting the minimum hourly rate. That means a Portland employer of a service worker can currently pay that worker $6.50 per hour provided the worker makes enough in tips to earn an hourly rate of at least $13 per hour.

The minimum wage proposal on November's ballot would strike the tip credit from city ordinance and replace it with a provision requiring employers to pay the full proposed minimum wage of $18 per hour to service workers by 2025.

Two groups — One Fair Wage Portland and Restaurant Industry United — are targeting that provision with their committees.

Greg Dugal, a spokesperson for Restaurant Industry United — who also serves as director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, a trade group representing the hospitality industry — said the ballot question committee is made up of restaurant owners and employees who are worried about losing the tip credit.

Maine voters passed a minimum wage proposal in 2016 that included statewide elimination of the tip credit, but lawmakers voted to restore the option in 2017 after hearing from servers and bartenders that they usually made far more in tips than the $12 per hour promised by the new state minimum wage and that patrons were tipping less because they were confused by the change in the law.

"There was a great concern they would lose their tips because people thought they were being paid more," Dugal said. "Servers make good money and they had a big concern."

He said restaurant owners also worry about how much eliminating the tax credit would add to their operating costs. "Quite frankly, they're just not going to be able to absorb that increase," Dugal said.

Mike Sylvester, treasurer for One Fair Wage Portland, said his group wants to eliminate all subminimum wages and believes the minimum wage should be the same for all types of workers. He said the restaurant industry is in a different place after the pandemic than it was in 2016.

"The views of workers, both in the front and back of the house, on what's a livable wage have really changed," said Sylvester, who is also an outgoing Democratic state representative from Portland and House chair of the Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Labor and Housing. "So many people just lost their jobs because restaurants were closed or it was just takeout."

Sylvester said tipped workers in Portland shouldn't fear losing tips if the proposal passes. "Certainly in Portland, with tourists in the summer, people make an enormous amount of money serving," Sylvester said. "That's not going to change. And in the winter, when things are leaner, you'll have a guaranteed wage rather than not knowing what your pay will be this week."

SUPPORT FOR CLEAN ELECTIONS

Fair Elections Portland was set up to support the charter commission's proposal for clean elections, which would create a public financing mechanism for candidates in local races. The charter commission was approved by voters in 2020 after Fair Elections Portland gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on municipal public financing before voters but the City Council determined such a proposal would need to be reviewed by a charter commission.

The group has already received a $10,000 donation from the Proteus Action League, a Massachusetts nonprofit. Anna Kellar, who will be the campaign manager for the committee, said the group is planning to work on voter education in the coming months and does not want to see clean elections overlooked with so much else on the November ballot.

"We're hoping to do some work to communicate to voters what it is, that it's on the ballot and that this thing that they do broadly support, having less influence of big money over local politics, is a question where they can vote for something positive in the charter commission recommendations," Kellar said.