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Portland clerk apologizes for mistake that could have kept citizens petitions off ballot

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones offered a brief but apparently heart-felt apology Monday for giving activists who are pursuing two citizens initiatives the wrong deadline to submit petitions for the November elections.

The mistake nearly upended the efforts to adopt a rent stabilization ordinance and give residents more leverage in rezoning decisions.

Gwendolyn Forrest, a Portland renter, holds up a sign during a rally at City Hall on Aug. 9 to push for a referendum in November on a rent stabilization ordinance. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal Sept. 6.

But the city attorney found that the ordinance requiring a 90-day pre-election public hearing by the City Council was not enacted legally in 2011. That means the council needs to hold a hearing by Sept. 6 for the measures to make the November ballot.

Jones was on vacation when her mistake was discovered. Mayor Ethan Strimling said she asked for the opportunity to speak on Monday.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for the error I made,” Jones said, with her voice breaking up. “I totally overlooked the 90-day ordinance requirement and for that I am truly sorry.”

Councilor Brian Batson said he appreciated Jones’ comments, saying she was extremely friendly and helpful when he was getting his paperwork to run for the City Council last year. “We are all human. We all make mistakes,” Batson said.

Jack O’Brien, an organizer with Fair Rent Portland, said he was pleased that the city found a “straightforward solution” to get rent stabilization on the November ballot. He said he appreciates city’s efforts to correct the error and thinks it was an honest error, but he didn’t say whether Jones’ explanation would appease his group.

“I personally believe humans make mistakes and that’s almost certainly what happened here,” O’Brien said. “We might hope for a more complete accounting in the future.”

Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said the City Council changed ordinance governing citizens initiatives in 2008 and 2011, without sending those changes to the voters, as required by the state Constitution. That leaves in effect the 1991 version of the ordinance, which calls for the council to hold a public hearing on any citizens initiative at least 60 days before – and no more than 150 days before – an election.

“Without the ratification, those changes are not in place,” West-Chuhta said.

The council voted to hold hearings on the two initiatives Sept. 6. After that, the council will have three options: Send the questions to the voters; send the questions to voters along with competing measures; or adopt the initiatives as written.

“We would comply with that requirement,” West-Chuhta said.

Petitioners were blindsided when the city clerk told them that the Aug. 7 deadline was incorrect and that the measures would have to be voted on either in a special election or next June. That sparked two rallies organized by Fair Rent Portland.

Organizers called on the city to provide a full accounting of how and why the mistakes were made.

Fair Rent Portland is looking to establish a rent stabilization ordinance that would limit annual rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own five or more units. It also would establish a landlord-tenant board that would mediate disputes, assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants, and allow landlords to increase rents beyond what the ordinance allows, among other things.

Another group is looking to change the way the city changes its zoning to accommodate development proposals.

Give Neighborhoods a Voice’s initiative would prevent a zoning change from being enacted if at least 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet sign a document opposing the change. A developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document within 45 days.

The Planning Board now vets rezoning requests and makes recommendations to the City Council, which has the final say.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: randybillings

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