Activists who are trying to create a municipal clean elections program in Portland sued the city Friday over the City Council’s decision to not send the proposal to voters.

Petitioners gathered more than enough signatures to qualify for a referendum. However, councilors voted on Monday to not place the clean elections proposal on the ballot after the city’s top attorney said a mandatory funding provision represents a significant revision of the city charter and would need to be reviewed by a Charter Commission before going to voters.

An attorney for Fair Elections Portland said in a news release Friday afternoon that the council’s action was a violation of the petitioners’ constitutional rights.

“This lawsuit is about more than this one charter amendment,” attorney John Brautigam said. “It is about vindicating the basic constitutional right of the people to have a say in their government – a right we fear the city has repeatedly ignored.”

The lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, asks a judge to declare the council’s action a violation of the 1st and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which allow citizens to petition their government for a redress of grievances and guarantees each citizen due process of law.

The lawsuit also requests a preliminary and permanent injunction to force the city to place the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, even though the city clerk has said the deadline to print and order ballots for the upcoming election already has passed. The next citywide election is scheduled for March as part of the state’s presidential primary.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the city is reviewing the lawsuit and did not have a comment at this time.

At issue is whether the proposal is an amendment or a major revision to the city’s charter, which lays out the city’s governmental structure.

Fundamental change to that structure requires the establishment of a Charter Commission, consisting of council appointees and people elected by voters. However, an amendment that only makes a minor change can proceed directly to voters.

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Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said the public funding mandate contained in the clean election proposal makes it a charter revision, because it removes a fundamental power from the City Council, which sets both the city and school budgets.

City Councilors Belinda Ray and Justin Costa offered to work with Fair Elections Portland to draft a clean elections ordinance that could be sent to voters as a charter amendment. But that could lead to the removal of the mandatory funding requirement, instead making it an annual allocation. Petitioners say that could allow future councils to avoid providing the funding needed to make the program work.

Costa said that he and Ray have said repeatedly that they plan to bring charter amendments forward not only for the clean elections program, but also a proposal to expand ranked-choice voting to all city races for the March ballot. Fair Elections Portland had failed to collect enough valid signatures for the proposal to expand ranked-choice voting, which is now used only in Portland’s mayoral elections.

“I think we have been very clear this is coming and we’re going to follow through in short order,” Costa said. “If  people’s real concern is allowing the citizens to vote on these, they should have no concern. We’re going to give voters a say on both of them, including something that clearly did not qualify for the ballot.”

Fair Elections Portland chairwoman Anna Kellar said this week that the group would consider filing a lawsuit to preserve that funding requirement, so the program could not be manipulated by incumbents. The group collected about 8,500 signatures, of which over 6,800 were deemed valid.

“The City Council’s refusal is an insult to every Portland voter,” Kellar said in a written statement. “They are saying, ‘Your voices don’t matter. You have no meaningful say in how your government is run.’ By filing this suit, we are making it impossible for them to continue to deny the voting public our rights.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Pious Ali were the only two councilors who did not agree with West-Chuhta’s legal opinion and voted in support of sending the clean elections proposal out to voters as a charter amendment.

Strimling and Ali said in a joint statement Friday that “it is a sad day for Portland that our citizens had to sue their government to gain access to the ballot.”

“The people of this city did everything they needed to do to give us an opportunity to get big money out of politics, and a majority of the Portland City Council failed them,” they said. “Now the taxpayers must foot the bill for a costly and time-consuming lawsuit. We hope the court acts quickly to overturn the decision, so that the will of the people can be heard.”

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