Portland City Council to hold public hearings, vote on sending referendum questions to ballot

·6 min read

Aug. 5—The Portland City Council will hold public hearings Monday ahead of voting to set a date for residents to weigh in on five citizen-initiated referendum proposals, including another minimum wage hike, greater restrictions on short-term rentals and limits on cruise ship passengers disembarking in the city.

Councilors could also adopt the initiatives outright, or come up with competing measures to send to voters. Councilor Andrew Zarro said Thursday he plans to propose adopting the cruise ship initiative and send it to the council's Sustainability and Transportation Committee for review before bringing final recommendations back to the full council this fall.

Other proposals could come up before or on Monday.

"Things can come from the floor Monday but I have let the council know anything they can do ahead of time to be prepared and to communicate and to work with corporation counsel and me so we're heading into Monday as well prepared as possible is what I want to do," said Mayor Kate Snyder.

Last month, organizers gathered at least 1,500 signatures in support of each question, meeting the threshold for placing them on the ballot. The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America's Livable Portland Campaign is behind four of the questions. The DSA was also behind ballot initiatives approved by city voters in 2020, including rent control, the Green New Deal building code and a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2024.

REFERENDUM FRUSTRATION

Snyder and several councilors said Thursday they are concerned by what they see as an overuse of the referendum process and don't believe it is the best way to make policy.

"I think policy-making by referendum is confusing," Snyder said. "We're taking complex, complicated matters and we're putting all the decision-making in a pre-packaged ordinance. ... It's not policy-making that I feel really takes into account the work we all need to do together, which is staff engagement, stakeholder engagement."

The minimum wage proposal, which seeks an increase to $18 per hour by 2025, for example, illustrates the challenge of trying to make policy via referendum, Snyder said. A minimum wage proposal was also approved by referendum in 2020.

"Here we are looking at another minimum wage ordinance from citizens when they just got one passed two years ago," Snyder said. "I think what we're seeing here is a very real time example of how policy making is less durable when it doesn't involve a lot of stakeholders."

According to city code, the council cannot amend an ordinance approved by referendum vote for five years, though it can propose changes through an additional referendum.

Councilor Tae Chong, who has said frustration with citizens' referendums is a reason he won't seek re-election this year, reiterated that point Thursday, and said he opposes all five referendum questions, not only because of the process but also because of the content and unintended consequences, such as possibly losing cruise ship revenue.

Chong said, however, he will still "honor the process" and forward the proposals to voters because organizers gathered the necessary number of signatures.

"It's a democratic process and if people don't want to vote it down and want to pass it, then that's the government we deserve," he said.

Councilor April Fournier said in an email Thursday that there are some "good and important ideas" in the questions, but she too is frustrated.

"I see referendums as a failure by the elected body to be accessible to the public, but I feel like our current council is very accessible, very transparent and very willing to listen to the public," Fournier said. "So it leads me to think there is a disconnect and I hope that we can address that moving forward."

Fournier said she doesn't intend to offer competing measures because voters already face more than a dozen ballot questions this fall including proposals by the city's Charter Commission. "But I think we will have to have a very strong public education campaign about what the impact of each of these items potentially are and the language included for each of them," she said.

CRUISE SHIP PROPOSAL

Zarro said the committee was already discussing the environmental impacts of cruise ships and the council wants residents to engage on such issues. The referendum proposal would require cruise ships to obtain a permit from the city to disembark passengers and would limit the number who disembark to 1,000 a day.

"It's not lip service when I say I want people to engage and reach out to us," he said. "We are here to hear our constituents. That's the job. We are here to serve them."

Zarro also sits on the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, which has been examining potential changes to the city's minimum wage — currently $13 per hour. But he said the 2020 and proposed 2022 referendums have made that work challenging.

"I would love to increase minimum wage quicker but we couldn't because it's tied to the referenda from 2020, so unfortunately we had to wait to November to put our recommendation together because the people have to vote on it," Zarro said. "That's not because of the council ... that's a reality of the unintended consequences of citizens' referenda being passed."

Wes Pelletier, campaign chair for the DSA's Livable Portland campaign, pushed back on councilors' criticism of the process Thursday, saying the questions speak to the urgency of those issues.

"We really want to work with the City Council on these measures but a lot of the residents of Portland don't have the time to wait for these policies to get passed and we're not seeing a lot of action," Pelletier said. "They do have the opportunity to enact some of these referenda and we would be open to that and to working with them going forward. But at the end of the day we represent a lot of people who can't wait for a slow-moving political body to take the necessary action."

Snyder said the referendum issues are council priorities and in many cases — such as cruise ships and minimum wage — work has begun in committee. But she said good policy takes time.

"People say, 'Well, the council hasn't acted on these things,' " Snyder said. "The council is working on these things and will bring them forward when they're ready. I think part of being ready is making sure everyone who wants to engage and should engage has."

The public can comment on either the council's actions or on the content of the questions, though Snyder said the council's focus Monday night will be on sending the questions to the ballot.

"Unlike a regular council-initiated ordinance amendment where we're looking for people to weigh in on the work we're doing, what we're voting on Monday night is whether to put these things on the ballot," she said. "We didn't craft these ordinance amendments, so it will be kind of an interesting public hearing."

The council Monday will also consider setting election dates and public hearings for additional ballot questions expected to go to voters in November, including eight the Charter Commission is bringing forward. The council is also proposing to amend the charter to include gender-neutral and gender-fair language.

Public hearings for the Charter Commission questions and the amendment are being proposed for Sept. 1.