PORTLAND, Maine — Two citizen initiatives aimed at changing the rules around renting and development in Portland will not appear on the ballot this fall because of a scheduling error made by the Portland city clerk’s office.
On Monday, Portlanders submitted the thousands of signatures required to put two referendums on the November ballot: one over enacting rent controls and another about giving neighborhood residents more say over rezoning.
The city clerk had set Monday as the deadline to submit signatures for referendums. But a city spokeswoman said Monday evening that officials realized there is not enough time for the questions to go through the requisite public hearing process.
Under city ordinance, an initiative can be placed on the ballot no fewer than 90 days before the election. Before that happens, the city clerk has to validate the signatures in support of the question and the city council must schedule a hearing on it and give 10 days notice of that hearing.
With the Nov. 7 election only 92 days away, the city can’t meet that timeframe, spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said.
The city clerk’s office realized the scheduling issue Monday and informed the groups behind the two ballot initiatives, Grondin said.
Fair Rent Portland, which put forward the rent control initiative, said the they first learned of the error when a reporter reached out for comment. The group expressed shock in a statement, noting that members had been repeatedly told by the city clerk’s office that submitting signatures by Aug. 7 would allow them to put a question on the ballot.
“To negate an important civic initiative — the result of scores of volunteers, hundreds of hours of donated time, and thousands of engaged citizens — on the basis of an admitted clerical error runs counter to the spirit of the democratic process,” the group said in a statement late Monday. “Fair Rent Portland calls on our publicly elected councilors to rectify this error, avoid an unnecessary and costly special election, and restore confidence in our municipal government by allowing the citizens of Portland to make their voice heard in November.”
Angela Wheaton, who helped organize the zoning initiative, said her group was confused and disappointed by the city’s error and would like the city council to find a way to get the question on the November ballot. Otherwise, they’d hope for a special election on the question, she said.
Councilor Jill Duson wrote in an email that she is “truly sorry about this apparent mistake” and praised the hard work of the city clerk.
“This is an outcome that none of us anticipated or would have wished for,” Duson said. “[The city’s lawyer] is reviewing and rechecking to identify any possible action the council might take to fix this but I understand it does not look promising.”
Under the Fair Rent Portland proposal, limits would be placed on annual rent increases on existing leases in bigger buildings, tied to the Consumer Price Index — about 2 percent per year.
Attorney Mary Davis led the attempt to pursue the other referendum which, if passed, would allow 25 percent of the registered voters who live or own property within 500 feet of a proposed zoning change to block it, the publication MaineBiz reported.
Davis’ proposal would give developers an opportunity to override the neighborhood veto by getting approval from at least 51 percent of registered voters within 1,000 feet of their project.
Mayor Ethan Strimling said Monday afternoon he was disappointed that the questions would not appear on the November ballot. The city council will have to think about whether to hold a special election for them, he said.