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Calls for more collaboration as Portland activists push policy changes through referendum

Portland City Hall (WGME){ }
Portland City Hall (WGME)
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PORTLAND (WGME) -- It's become a change in the way some major policy decisions are made in Portland, as grassroots organizations increase their efforts to get legislation passed through referendum rather than through the city council.

Supporters believe letting the voters decide some pieces of public policy shows the democratic process is working, while opponents argue the strategy is is flawed.

"The referendum system is being abused," Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Quincy Hentzel said. "These issues really warrant going through the process of the city council. It's why we elect city councilors."

Just this election cycle, four citizens' initiatives will be placed on the ballot in Portland, including an increase the city's minimum wage. Hentzel believes the rise in referendums has allowed bad public policy to become law without much of a debate.

"Bringing policy issues by referendum is incredibly challenging, because you don't have the ability to actually change the ordinance that's in the referendum," Hentzel said. "You can't compromise and you can't even examine what the negative consequences are going to be."

One major policy change passed by voters in 2020 was the "Green New Deal," which made significant changes to the city's building codes. Opponents believe the policy has been detrimental to development, but those who fought to get the question on the ballot say the process worked as planned.

"We had tried to put it through the city council years prior and failed," Kate Sykes, a member of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said. "So we wanted to put it to the voters."

The Maine DSA has played a large role in getting citizen petitions on the ballot in recent years. Sykes believes the process helps give a voice to those who otherwise might not be heard through regulars channels of city government.

"We really believed that there was a working class movement in Portland that wasn't being heard and that they deserved to get their say at the ballot box," Sykes said. "We're the people, we make the demands and we keep making them even if we don't get what we want from traditional channels. We have other tools to be able to do that."

The increased push to make these policy changes outside of the traditional channels has raised questions about the role of the Portland City Council. The CBS13 I-Team reached to each member to ask if they believe the public's voice is being heard and if they have any concerns about policy changes moving forward without the normal checks and balances of the council process.

Only two city council members got back to us.

Councilwoman April Fournier wrote in a statement:

I will say I do feel like we are a council who are very accessible, transparent, present in social media and willing to engage. I’m wondering how we can do better for those who still feel like they’re not being heard so we can make policy together instead of by referendum.

Councilman Andrew Zarro told CBS13:

"People have every right to exercise their right to a citizens referendum. The process is defined in the city code.
I believe the current City Council is comprised of some of the most accessible and transparent Councilors we have seen in quite some time. We have worked diligently with City Staff and one another to ensure the public has a direct connection to each of us, the City Manager and city services — many of us ran on that very platform. We have amended Council Rules to increase access, we consistently address public inquiry (often in live-time) in Council and Committee, and overall we have observed a systemic change in the past two years that has resulted in an influx of community engagement.
There have been times in the past when Council was reluctant to change, and public concerns went unheard; however, I do not see that as the path we are currently on. Yes, there is still more work to be done as we ebb and flow as a city, but I am proud of the work my colleagues put into being available for our constituents.
I have personally been working on several of the issues that we are seeing addressed in this round of referendums. During this session, I have been actively working to address the minimum wage in the Housing & Economic Development Committee and cruise ships in the Sustainability & Transportation Committee. Quite a bit of work has already gone into these issues, with City resources already dedicated to affecting change with the goal of implementing policy. Not only have they been worked on publicly in several committee meetings, but there has also been regular press coverage on developments as they are worked on in committee. Similarly, we have been discussing short term rental policy in HEDC this session.
I was frustrated when I saw these issues show up so suddenly as referendum questions. I did not hear from anyone looking to collaborate or engage prior to these, and I do not think it is fair or accurate to say that the Council was not hearing community feedback on these. We have been actively doing the work and leading on these very initiatives during this session, and have been following through on that work.
I am a big fan of public engagement at every opportunity. City Hall is the people's house, and I want to know what our people want and need. That means robust engagement at the committee level all the way through to the full Council. I want experts with domain experience working alongside the Council, City Staff and our constituents to bring solutions-focused policy forward. I don’t believe in single-issue voting. I believe in a citizenry who shows up to do the work alongside their municipal leaders — and we need people to show up and work with us to get good policy enacted. We need that to happen year-round, not just in November."

Under the current city code, once a policy decision is made through referendum it can't be changed for five years, unless another ballot question is put forward.

With governing by referendum becoming a more popular model in Portland, some in the community believe that code should get a second look.

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"There are a lot of people that are looking at that aspect of our referendum process and thinking through whether that needs to be changed," Hentzel said. "I think there's a lot of people in the city that are now realizing how dangerous it is to take really robust dynamic policy issues and put it out by a referendum."

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