Portland council denies marijuana petitioners extra time to collect signatures
By Randy Billings
Aug 16, 2011 8:50 am
PORTLAND — A petition effort aimed to make enforcement of marijuana laws the Portland Police Department's lowest priority has been snuffed out — at least for now.
But proponents of an ordinance that would have codified marijuana laws as the city's lowest enforcement priority said they are ready to try again.
The City Council on Monday rejected a proposal that would have allowed the marijuana advocacy group, Sensible Portland, additional time to collect signatures that would have placed the ordinance on the November ballot.
Sensible Portland collected 2,100 signatures and turned them in to the City Clerk's office on July 15, a month ahead of schedule. But the group fell 93 signatures short of the 1,500 needed after the clerk culled the list for registered Portland voters.
Councilor David Marshall called the 35 percent rejection rate "unprecedented," and asked the council to considered giving the group an additional 10 days to collect the signatures.
"This group thought they had 10 (extra) days and plenty of signatures," Marshall said.
Marshall, along with Sensible Portland members, noted that the city's petition gathering process is not only at odds with the state, but also an exception within its own local laws.
The state allows petitioners extra time to gather signatures if they fall short. So does the city where a group is trying to change the City Charter, but not the code of ordinances.
"It's actually easier to change the City Charter than it is the City Ordinance," Marshall said. "That just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me."
Sensible Portland, which believes the city wastes time and money on marijuana enforcement, said they acted in good faith to comply with the existing rules.
Anthony Zeli, of Sensible Portland, said the grassroots effort relied completely on volunteers, most of whom had never before petitioned. That group worked closely with city staff on both the petition and the proposed ordinance, he said.
"This is definitely a complex process," Zeli said. "It's not easy for a group of citizens to go through."
To deny the group additional time, some said, would be to disenfranchise the 1,000 Portland residents who supported putting the question on the ballot.
"Those signatures are not just ink on paper," resident Jason Shedlock said. "They represent voters across the city who have engaged, to one extent or another, in the civic process. Whether or not one agrees with the underlying goal, we as a city should be fostering that engagement any chance we can."
But resident Robert Haines said the issue had nothing to do with civic engagement.
"This is about sour grapes," Haines said. "You don't change a process once it has started to bail out a group that didn't do their homework."
The majority of councilors agreed that it was unfair to change the rules midstream to help a specific petition drive.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she served on the council when the ordinance was changed to prohibit additional time for ordinance petitioners. That action occurred because the city lowered the signature threshold, she said.
"The state ... threshold is much higher with regard to how many signatures you have to have, which is why they allow you that extra 10 days," Leeman said.
But councilors were open to a comprehensive review of the petition process as it compares to state law, directing staff to collect information for an early October workshop.
While it takes 1,500 signatures to place a citizen-initiated ordinance on the ballot, the state standard for changing Portland's charter is upwards of 4,500 signatures.
But Leeman cautioned that the group's effort to align state and local laws might backfire.
"I think you will find it will make it more difficult," she said.
After the meeting, Sensible Portland immediately began collecting more signatures for a new petition effort.
Zeli said the group was not giving up on the effort and is eying the June 2012 or November 2012 ballot.
"It's a setback for for this petition drive," he said, "but it's certainly not the end of the issue."
Randy Billings can br reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings