Portland City Council establishes clean elections program

May 1—Portland city councilors Monday approved creating a municipal clean elections program that will provide campaign funding to candidates in local races, starting with the November election.

The program was approved 5-3 after an amendment from Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez that set appropriations amounts for the program was also approved by the same margin. Councilor Pious Ali was absent. Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Mark Dion and Andrew Zarro voted against both the amendment and the final proposal.

The action comes after voters last year approved a Charter Commission recommendation requiring the council to establish a clean elections ordinance and fund. Councilors held two workshops and delayed a vote last week after saying they needed more time to finalize the rules.

"We want a program that is viable and attractive to candidates," Trevorrow said. "If we don't get it right, we don't really have an opportunity for the program to do what it's supposed to do, which is level the playing field and reduce the influence of private interests."


Trevorrow and Rodriguez offered their amendment after an earlier amendment from Dion was rejected 6-2 with only Dion and Snyder in support. That amendment sought to strip specific allocations from the ordinance, as Dion argued such numbers should be part of the annual budget process, not part of an ordinance.

"How we assign money and distribute it to a pool of candidates are fiscal questions, not policy as to whether or not we have a clean elections mechanism in the city," Dion said.

Snyder expressed concerns with the ordinance as written following passage of the amendment, saying she is uncomfortable with the amount of money it will cost, the timeline for distribution, which allows candidates to collect funds prior to handing in signatures to get on the ballot; and that the budget allocations will be part of the ordinance.

"It's not that I don't appreciate and support the implementation of a clean elections program," Snyder said. "But I feel like I have to, for the record, have some reservations about the decisions that live in here."

Zarro also expressed concerns about the budget impact of the amendment from Rodriguez and Trevorrow, which says $465,000 should be allocated for the fund this year and at least $290,000 in subsequent years.

The Charter Commission and city staff had previously estimated the cost of clean elections at $290,000 annually, and interim City Manager Danielle West included in her budget proposal $260,000 for the program itself plus $30,000 for an elections database.

West said Monday that the council's finance committee could take up a proposed change.

"I still have a little bit of sticker shock," Zarro said. "I know this is an important investment, but I'm trying to figure out if we should be setting this up for what we want to see the outcome be in terms of how much money is spent versus, for lack of a better term, what the market dictates."


Candidates for mayor, City Council and school board will all be eligible for the funds.

Staring June 1, those interested in participating can register with the city clerk and begin collecting qualifying contributions — $5 donations a candidate must collect from voters to be eligible for the municipal funds.

The program sets a required number of qualifying contributions based on the office, and the ordinance also outlines how much city funding candidates are eligible to receive.

In contested races, mayoral candidates will get an initial $40,000 and may be awarded additional money up to $100,000 based on additional qualifying contributions. In contested City Council races, at-large candidates will get an initial $10,000 in at-large races and $4,000 in district races, with up to $30,000 and $12,000 available respectively based on additional qualifying contributions.

Rodriguez told fellow councilors that the numbers were not random, but were based on historical fundraising from past campaigns, and that if the program is not adequately funded, it won't appeal to candidates. "They know what others have done, and they can expect what their opponents will raise," he said.

In the most recent mayoral race, in 2019, nearly $400,000 was spent by three candidates, or an average of about $132,000 each, according to data compiled by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Spending in council at-large races ranged from $369 to $30,576 per candidate between 2009 and 2021, with the highest amount exceeding $50,000.

Candidates would be eligible to receive funds no earlier than 113 days before the election, which would be around July 17 this year. That means they would be eligible for funds prior to the time period when signatures can be handed in to get on the ballot. According to the city clerk's office, nominating papers are available starting June 30 this year and due back between Aug. 14 and Aug. 28.

The new ordinance states that if a distribution is made prior to a candidate qualifying for the ballot, the candidate would only be eligible for a lesser amount equal to the amounts allotted for uncontested races, and would need to sign an affidavit stating they will return the funds if they don't qualify.

Trevorrow said it will be harder for candidates to collect qualifying contributions than signatures to get on the ballot, so the likelihood that a qualifying candidate ends up not making the ballot is small, and that waiting to distribute funds until the end of August or early September would be too late in a campaign.

She also said the council could look at amending the city charter, which dictates the timeline for taking out and filing nominating papers, to better align the two processes.

"I recognize that this proposal is requiring a leap of faith from some of my colleagues, in terms of both numbers and the structural components, but I think it's worth it to create a program candidates will use," Trevorrow said.

She estimated the budget impact of this year's program will be less than 0.1% on the tax rate.


In other news Monday, the council held a first read and public hearing on a proposed $143.8 million school budget that includes a 5.7% increase in the school side of the tax rate. The council heard concerns about the budget and tax rate increase as well as support from several residents.

Brad Hanscomb told the council he believes the proposed tax rate increase is too high.

"I've spent a decent amount of time reading the materials from the school board and articles in the newspaper and I'm concerned about some of the language that's been used," Hanscomb said. "The number of times the word 'investment' is used is striking to me. I wouldn't call them investments. I would call them spending increases."

Resident Samuel Rich said he "enthusiastically" supports the school budget.

"The school system is excellent here," Rich said. "Our children are having an amazing experience as part of the Ocean Avenue community, and I feel obliged to support our educators as generously as they have supported us."

School spending accounts for just over 50% of the overall tax rate. West has included a 6.1% increase in the tax rate in the proposed city budget, which when taken in conjunction with the school budget, would result in an overall tax rate increase of about 5.9%.

A second read, public hearing and council vote on the school budget are expected to take place May 15, followed by a June 13 referendum.