Portland City Council begins developing state's first municipal clean elections program

Mar. 13—The Portland City Council began developing a new clean elections program Monday that the city plans to have in place for the November election.

Maine in 1996 established the Maine Clean Elections Act, a voluntary program for public campaign funding for state level offices including governor and legislators, but Portland is the state's first community to establish such a program at the municipal level.

A trio of lawyers Monday recommended that the city generally follow the state model — at least for now — which consists of a block grant system in which candidates collect a certain number of qualifying contributions and are then awarded campaign funds.

"The public and candidates are likely familiar with the current state system; the timeline allows for what we believe will be a faster implementation and compared to a voucher system this will require less public education and procedural systems," said Brandon Mazer, one of the attorneys advising the city.

The city is on a tight timeline to develop an ordinance to govern the program. Candidates for the November election — which includes races for mayor and three City Council seats — can take out nominating papers June 30 and must return them at the end of August.

Mazer suggested the city look at a similar timeline for qualifying for clean elections, with campaign funds dispersed in early September. Candidates could also collect and use a limited amount of "seed money" prior to qualifying for the program.

Clean elections programs around the country take different forms. In addition to Maine's block grant program, other places use small donor-matching programs, wherein small donations below a certain threshold are matched; and "democracy vouchers," wherein voters are given vouchers to spend on their desired candidate.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a nonprofit that works to ensure campaign finance law and elections work in the public interest and which has advocated for a Portland clean elections program, has also recommended that the city adopt a block grant program to start.

"We recommend an iterative approach — enacting the essential core aspects of a block grant system this year, and then assessing improvements after the first year, including the capacity for voucher contributions or a hybrid system in future years," the group said in a January memo.

Portland adopted its program after voters approved a Charter Commission recommendation last year requiring the city to start a clean elections fund and establish an ordinance dictating how it will work.

Councilors mostly asked questions Monday.

"We are on a really short timeline, so I would propose, as we've heard, a type of pilot for this year and trying to implement as closely as possible what the state has so we have a roadmap, and as we move forward we can adjust and correct," said Councilor April Fournier.

Councilor Anna Trevorrow said she believes the program will be "heavily utilized."

"I think there may be an opportunity to curb election spending through this program," Trevorrow said. "Just going with what has been the total amount spent in recent campaigns, we can probably come down from that a little bit. I serve in a district seat and I think $10,000 for my seat is plenty."

The council will determine not only what type of system the city will use, but also how many contributions are needed to qualify for city funding and what the spending limits will be. The Charter Commission estimated the annual cost of the program at $290,000, though that will largely depend on the parameters set by the council.

The council is scheduled to hold another clean elections workshop on March 27 with a public hearing and action on a final ordinance likely to come in April.