If necessity is the mother of invention, then ineptitude is the first cousin of citizens’ petitions. When lawmakers falter, “grass-roots” efforts arise to give voice to the people.

And when this voice needs amplification, it dials Stavros Mendros, who hasn’t met a referendum question he didn’t like. Name your issue, he’ll name his price and put his signature-gathering machine to work.

It should be little surprise supposed grass-roots efforts are germinated with cash money. Mendros, to his credit, has the entrepreneurial guile to position himself as master of ceremonies for these special interests who covet a spot on the Maine ballot. He’s a veritable Karl Rove when it comes to organizing petition drives.

And that’s a compliment.

Some will say this is corrupting democracy, as paid signature-gathering campaigns for so-called grass-roots initiatives is counterintuitive, or downright disingenuous. Mendros, in defense, calls it direct democracy, as all ideas – regardless of who proposes or propels them – deserve their chance before the voters.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right.

But only to a point.

Popular ideas often stumble in the legislative process, or wilt under its political heat. Citizen initiatives can resurrect good ideas, force lawmakers to attend to certain issues, or retaliate against poor partisan policymaking.

A vehicle like Mendros that directs these proposals through the signature-gathering process is a necessary and valuable commodity, as long as it addresses the needs of Maine and its people. The alternative, more mercenary approach – which Mendros embraces – creates the perfect environment for the system to be abused.

Like the open real estate listing drive Mendros is stewarding. There’s neither a strong Maine connection to the issue, nor a groundswell of support here for its enaction. It’s the brainchild of a California man, tired of crummy real estate dealings, who looks at Maine as an easy target for setting a precedent of legality for his idea.

We don’t fault Mendros for his business instinct and acumen. Our concern is the lack of discretion – while voters should be free to decide any topic, our votes should not be collected as coinage for organizations seeking to build infrastructure for a new model, especially one that could be a business scheme.

There’s a difference between direct democracy and democracy-for-profit. Although Mendros paints himself as democracy’s defender, he’s really a soldier-of-fortune. Wariness about his motives will remain until his attitude toward petitions changes, or laws regarding these initiatives are altered.

Perhaps a grass-roots effort would make the latter occur. A political action committee could form, “Mainers for Greater Discretion in Citizen Initiatives,” to advocate for legislation.

We know who should be hired to gather signatures.


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