PORTLAND, Maine — A change to Portland’s rules for petition gathering was shot down by a divided City Council on Wednesday night. The “rolling petitions” initiative was proposed after a citizens’ group seeking to de-fang enforcement of marijuana possession laws fell short in its signature collection efforts.

The change, which initially was brought to the board by Councilor David Marshall, would allow petitioners to turn in signatures — and for the City Clerk’s Office to verify those signatures — as they’re collected.

The amendment would allow petitioners to continue collecting signatures while those already turned in are being counted and would provide the clerk’s office 15 days to verify each batch turned in.

According to Portland’s code, a signature list is now verified in its entirety after the submission deadline, leaving the petitioners no time to collect more names if their documents came up short.

Using the “rolling tabulation” process, as it’s described in City Council documents, the petitioners would be able to get the signatures approved by City Hall along the way and adapt their process accordingly.

In the summer, a group called Sensible Portland submitted petition papers aimed at making marijuana possession offenses the lowest enforcement priority for Portland police. But the City Clerk’s Office invalidated hundreds of signatures on the group’s papers — most of which were crossed off because the signers were not Portland residents — and the drive was declared a failure.

Marshall at the time sought council approval of a 10-day extension to buy Sensible Portland time to add enough names to meet the city’s 1,500-signature threshold to get on the ballot. But that request was denied by the larger council, and Marshall returned with the rolling petition proposal.

On Nov. 21, the council deadlocked on the proposal, 4-4, and tabled the issue at its Dec. 19 meeting, giving the rule change its day of reckoning Wednesday.

In that setting, the council defeated the proposal by a 5-4 vote. Councilor Nicholas Mavodones — who presided over the meeting with Mayor Michael Brennan opting for a lower profile position in the meeting as he recovers from recent surgery to remove a tumor — was joined by Jill Duson, Cheryl Leeman, Ed Suslovic and John Coyne in voting against the measure.

Marshall, Brennan, Kevin Donoghue and John Anton voted in favor of it.

City Clerk Kathy Jones urged a denial of the rolling petitions, arguing the staggered verification deadlines would add to the confusion and workload during the petition cycles. In 2011, the clerk’s office certified more than 3,600 petition papers, each of which had up to 60 signatures on it, Jones said.

But proponents of the rolling petitions didn’t buy that it would be burdensome on the clerk’s office and said changes to encourage more grass-roots participation in city government should be welcomed.

“If you have a certain number of signatures, whether you do them along the way or all at once, it’s still the same number of signatures,” Marshall said. “I have a hard time seeing this as adding to the workload.”

Added Donoghue: Petition gatherers “could do a better job, but this isn’t ‘Gotcha,’ this is participatory democracy.”

Councilors who voted against the proposal agreed with the sentiment of Duson, who said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“I don’t want it to be hard for citizens to bring a case and reverse a council policy. What I want is transparency and for the rules not to change from one case to another,” Duson said.

Other councilors, including Suslovic and Mavodones, balked at what they felt was a proposal to change the rules in reaction to one failed petition, not a systemic problem.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.