Lewiston should loosen grip on petition rules

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You definitely can’t fight city hall if the rules are stacked against you.

Such is the case in Lewiston, where an overly restrictive ordinance prohibits the circulation of citizen petitions (relating to municipal affairs) outside the city clerk’s office. Voters must appear at city hall during “business hours” of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to sign the petition; it’s the only opportunity afforded.

An initiative to change the ordinance, and allow door-to-door circulation of petitions, was defeated by the barest of margins on Tuesday by the Lewiston City Council. The absence of Councilor Mark Paradis left the vote tied at 3-3, and quashed the idea, for now.

This compromise, which would have also exempted budgetary and personnel issues from override petitions, must be reconsidered. Asking voters to appear in city hall to sign petitions, many of which will criticize municipal management, is a clear restriction on public involvement in government.

Lewiston residents’ ballyhooed effort to repeal the “rain tax” was the source of the scrutiny on the city’s petition rules. When city hall closed Thursday, the 60-day window for voters to sign the petition slammed shut,with the petition hundreds of signatures short of certification.

The rain tax, we’ve said, is a clever municipal plan to spread the cost of improving stormwater infrastructure equally across the city, and an example of how a service center community, like Lewiston, needs to harness potential revenue from tax-exempt properties.

Under the rain tax, major landholders such as the two hospitals and Bates College will contribute toward the upkeep of municipal infrastructure they use; by extension, the burden on residential homeowners should lighten by $30 to $50 annually.

This is what city leaders have promised, and we expect them to deliver.

Last November’s election politicized the rain tax, as two candidates for state office helped lead the petition campaign to repeal it. Jim Bennett, Lewiston’s city administrator, struck back by freezing hiring and asking city schools to cut $900,000. This thunderstorm, thankfully, turned to drizzle.

It did, however, expose the cracks in the city’s rules on petitions, which need repairing. Portland, by comparison, allows petitions on municipal affairs to circulate for 80 days, while Bangor and Auburn both ask for petitions to be returned within 30 days.

Those cities also allow citizens to take their petitions into the community, where they belong. Portland and Bangor, as well, have the budgetary and personnel exemptions, which are sensible, as citizen referendum processes should focus on policy decisions, not the day-to-day management of the municipality.

We urge the City Council to reconsider the compromise, and lighten the city’s stranglehold on petition circulation.

It is every citizen’s right to fight city hall, fairly.

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