It seemed like a straightforward story. A group of Portland residents concerned about the growing influence of money in local politics decided to do something about it.

They proposed creating a voluntary public financing program modeled on the state’s Clean Election Fund, which would make it easier for people without well-heeled supporters to run for office. They gathered the necessary signatures and planned to put the idea before the voters. But that’s not what happened.

Last week the Portland City Council voted 8-2 against letting voters decide the question, on the advice of the city’s legal department. The issue came down to an arcane distinction over whether the proposal was a charter “amendment,” which the voters could decide, or a charter “revision,” which can be accomplished only through a much more cumbersome charter review process.

If this sounds overly technical, it’s not. And it’s not an issue that affects only Portland, either. It’s a much broader question about the limits of direct democracy in Maine and who ultimately gets to decide an issue. Will it be the people, their elected officials or an unelected appointee, like a town attorney?

Fortunately, the case is headed to court, where a judge will be asked to determine where the ultimate power lies. Regardless of where you stand on the underlying issue, this appeal could have a widespread impact on how much municipal government can limit direct-democracy initiatives.

In most complex issues, we favor government decisions made through a deliberative process, where a wide range of interests are balanced and compromise is required. But when it comes to election reform, it’s nearly impossible to get elected officials to change the rules that brought them to office. You need people outside the system to push the question forward.

State law sets a very high bar for citizens who want to change the process by changing the charter.

Backers have to gather signatures of registered voters equal to 20 percent of the vote cast in a city or town at the last gubernatorial election, and they have to get them in 120 days. Even if they win on Election Day, they still can lose if the total vote count is less than 30 percent of the number of people who voted in the last race for governor.

With all of those high hurdles in place, it’s wrong to let one person’s legal interpretation trump a citizen-led effort.

Unless a Superior Court justice overturns this decision, there would be no way for the people of a town or city to alter the rules for elections without the permission of elected officials and staff.

This should have been a straightforward story that ended with a decision by the people. We hope that despite the twists and turns along the way, that’s how it will end up.

 

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