Portland City Hall Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s supreme court said Thursday that Portland officials did not provide adequate reasoning when they blocked a citizen’s initiative to establish a public funding program for local election candidates from appearing before voters. 

The issue boiled down to the statutory difference between a charter amendment and a revision.

The court said that Portland officials “failed to make findings of fact to explain its decision” in 2019 that a clean elections mechanism would constitute a revision to the charter, triggering a lengthy process, and not an amendment, which would have sent the issue to voters.

“The petition requesting a vote on the question of whether to modify Portland’s charter to provide public funding for municipal election candidates does not, on its face, purport to propose a fundamental change in the form, structure, or nature of the City’s government,” Justice Andrew Horton wrote in the Law Court’s opinion.

The decision awaits further legal proceedings, but the ruling could be a step toward a victory for clean election advocates in Maine’s largest city, and gives life to a public elections financing push that drew more than 8,500 signatures in 2019.

Under the Home Rule Act, citizens can propose amendments to the city charter which, with requisite signatures, must be passed on to voters. Revisions must first be handled by an elected charter commission.

In April 2019, the group Fair Elections Portland collected more than 8,500 signatures in support of putting the proposed modification to the City Charter on an upcoming municipal ballot. If passed by voters, the City of Portland would set up a financial mechanism to provide public funding for mayoral, city council and school board candidates.

But the initiative hit a snag.

In August, city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta sent a memo to councilors advising that they not put the issue on the ballot, arguing that funding a public elections mechanism “substantially disrupts the Council’s general powers and authority to determine what is in the best interests of the city” and would constitute a revision.

Heeding their attorney’s recommendation, Portland’s council decided not to send the question to voters as a charter amendment. The issue was shelved indefinitely in September 2019.

The case was remanded to the superior court with instructions to return to the Portland City Council for additional information. Officials will now clarify their argument that publicly funded elections would substantially interfere with fundamental city operations. Without that reasoning, the law court can not “determine whether the rejection of the petition involved legal error, an abuse of discretion or findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record.”

“The critical question is whether the proposed change is significant enough to require a (potentially) years-long inquiry into all aspects of the municipality’s government,” Justice Horton wrote in the ruling.

The supreme court decision elsewhere sided with the city, dismissing claims that Portland officials violated Fair Election Portland’s constitutional rights. The city has a right to “exercise a gatekeeping function” in making determinations.

“Now that the court has clarified its expectations about how council decisions on proposed charter changes should be handled, the city council can revisit its decision with the benefit of that guidance,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.

There is no public timetable for further proceedings related to the case.

Maria Testa, a member of Fair Elections Portland’s steering committee and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was grateful for the ruling. She said the city has been “incredibly cavalier with the will of the people.”

“Now it’s time for this new city council to take swift action, clean up the mess left by its predecessor, and finally allow a vote on this amendment,” Testa said.

Correction: An earlier version of the story indicated that Maine’s supreme court made a decision Thursday. The court has asked for more information necessary to make that decision.