City Hall is no place for petitions

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“Hi, excuse me, are you a registered voter in Maine? You are? Well, could I stop you for a second? I’m circulating a petition for…”

We’ve all heard the spiel. They echo inside the lobbies of our voting places, on the periphery of our favorite summertime events and in our shopping plazas around Christmas – fast-talking pollsters seeking signatures for their petitions, hawking their idea as the Next Greatest Thing.

It’s a great facet of democracy in Maine, home of the citizen’s initiative, the constitutional empowerment of residents to put an idea – popular or unpopular – before the people. Some are enacted, like medical marijuana or 55 percent state funding for education. Some are not, like the Palesky Tax Cap or Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

Others, like the proposed resort casino for Oxford County, are still waiting on the sidelines.

All of these proposals are sparked by a common flint: the desire, in a vigorous society of ideas, to allow viewpoints to circulate freely. These sidewalk pitchmen, and their dozens of clipboards, are selling new ideals (a most valuable product) and for this reason they are welcome.

The flip side of this occurs in Lewiston, where ordinance prohibits municipal petitions from circulating among the public. Instead of circulating among the masses, petitions puddle inside City Hall, the only place citzens can go – and only during normal business hours – to sign them. No exceptions.

It’s bad policy, and grates against democratic principles, especially when petitions question the decision-making of City Hall itself. How can we allow the government to control a citizen’s ability to speak their mind?

At best, this policy is a silly inconvenience. At worst, it’s a miscarriage of justice. Institutions facing questions shouldn’t be allowed control over those who wish to ask them, yet Lewiston’s ordinance creates just this scenario.

It must be changed. No other city in Maine has such a restrictive municipal petition ordinance, for good reason.

Lewiston’s is unfair.

Jim Bennett, Lewiston’s city administrator, agrees, and has called to change petition rules, despite objections from city attorneys. “There may be a valid argument saying otherwise,” Bennett says about maintaining the petition rules. “But I think our ordinances are wrong.”

That makes two of us, Jim.

On July 31, the City Council is scheduled to hear public comment on petition rules. We hope for a strong turnout, because heading to City Hall to voice opinions is a proper, effective way of changing government.

Going there to sign a petition is not.

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