Superior Court Supports Portland’s Home Rule Argument

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Justice Kennedy of the Cumberland County Superior Court recently ruled in favor of the City of Portland, giving significant deference to a municipality’s interpretation of its own charter. In the case of Fair Elections Portland v. City of Portland, the Court held that in a disputed factual context the judiciary would defer to the City’s determination that a petition that had been circulated for signatures and presented to the Council to put to the people for a vote, was a charter revision, not an amendment. A revision requires a charter commission and a more extensive process, whereas an amendment may simply be voted on at a municipal election if petitions are properly submitted. The Court implied that she was not convinced that was the proper result but felt constrained due to the deferential standard of review and separation of powers. The continuing lesson is that a municipality is not always compelled to put questions out to vote even if all other standards are met to call for an initiative or referendum. The question may be illegal, inconsistent with the existing charter, or otherwise improper, as here where it purported to be an amendment but was determined to be a revision.