August 20, 2018
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Portland council puts questions on ballot that were threatened by deadline mistake

Troy Bennett | BDN
Troy Bennett | BDN
Cat Bares of Fair Rent Portland chalks the names of American locales with rent control ordinances on the plaza outside Portland City Hall on Tuesday night.
By Jake Bleiberg, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — In November, residents will get to vote on whether the city should enact rent controls and a measure to give neighborhoods more control over development.

After a snafu that nearly blocked two citizen initiatives from making it onto the autumn ballot, the City Council voted unanimously soon after midnight Thursday to put the questions to local voters.

The late night vote marks a formal start to what already is taking shape as a hard fought campaign over whether Maine’s largest city should enact measures that supporters say are important to keeping Portland affordable for middle- and low-income people but opponents contend will mire developers and landlords, lower property values and fail to serve renters.

Brought forward by citizen groups, the two separate referendums will ask whether rent increases in Portland should be pegged to the rate of inflation in bigger buildings, and if neighborhood residents should be able to block changes to city zoning rules.

The rent control measure, put forward by Fair Rent Portland, would affect landlords who own buildings with five or more units. The proposed ordinance also would establish a landlord-tenant board to mediate disputes and limit the reasons for which a landlord may evict a tenant, among other things.

The other initiative, from the group Give Neighborhoods a Voice, would allow Portlanders to block zone changes, which are frequently made to allow for developments, if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet of the site sign a document opposing it.

Under the proposed ordinance, a developer could overcome this barrier by getting the support of a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site within 45 days. Zone changes are reviewed by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals before being decided on by the City Council.

Both measures will appear on the ballot with a summery and the full text of the proposed ordinances. The language of the summaries was written collectively by the councilors and city staff late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

Come November, either question would need a majority to be made city ordinance. But the two initiatives nearly didn’t make it onto the ballot.

Last month, after the two groups submitted signatures in support of the questions, the city clerk realized she had given them the wrong deadline.

The city initially said this error would keep the questions from coming up for a November vote. But staff then discovered another legal error, made in 2011, that voided a city ordinance and enabled the council to vote on placing the questions on the ballot, despite the mix up.

At the time, members of Give Neighborhoods a Voice worried that these irregularities might expose the ballot questions to legal challenges, if they are approved. And opposition is consolidating against them.

In August, a group calling itself Say No To Rent Control announced its opposition to Fair Rent Portland’s initiative. The group is registered as a municipal political action committee (PAC).

Say No To Rent Control had not raised any money as of its Aug. 15 registration with the city clerk’s office, but it had run up nearly $11,000 in debt, including more that $2,000 to Bernstein Shur, a law firm, more than $6,000 to Red Hill Strategies, a Republican consulting group, and more than $2,000 to communications consultant Derek Lavallee.

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a political blogger and contributor for the Bangor Daily News.

Give Neighborhoods a Voice’s referendum question is being opposed by One Portland, a PAC headed by state Rep. Heather Sanborn, a Portland Democrat. That committee raised $1,645 as of its Sept. 5 registration.

Give Neighborhoods a Voice had not filed a campaign finance report with the city clerk’s office, but the group behind the rent control measure has been fundraising and has won political support.

Fair Rent Portland had raised more than $7,000 as of its July 26 PAC registration and spent most of that sum. And Progressive Portland, a local nonprofit advocacy group, announced earlier this week that they will be supporting the rent control measure. The group has begun rallying their supporters to attend Fair Rent Portland fundraisers.

Progressive Portland registered as a political action committee in July and transferred $20,000 from its own coffers, through that PAC, to Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, another political action committee that is supporting the $64 million school bond. Protect Our Neighborhood Schools is headed by the spouse of one of Progressive Portland’s principals.


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