The Maine Civil Liberties Union has stepped in on behalf of capital-city citizens in a court battle against the Augusta City Council concerning First Amendment rights of citizens to petition the government.
In May, Augusta resident Bill Johnson filed to begin the petition process for three initiatives to appear on the June 14 municipal ballot. The initiatives concerned voter approval of zoning changes, and the use of a former school property sold to a developer and slated to become a Hannaford supermarket.
City council members tabled the petition requests, citing language in the city charter giving the council final say in permitting petitions. In early June, Augusta citizens fought back, and a Superior Court judge found in their favor, ruling the charter provision was unconstitutional. The judge ordered the city to allow for the petition process on these issues to continue.
The council's appeal to the Maine Supreme Court was heard July 19, in which the city's side continued to argue that the council should have the power to decide what citizen initiatives should be sent to voters, on the grounds that there is no fixed standard for the citizen-initiative process at the municipal level.
The MCLU argued that the limitation would compromise citizen opportunities to petition the government, a First Amendment and Maine Constitution guarantee.
“We have no opinion on the zoning issue,” says MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows, explaining her organization’s involvement in the case. “But we do think the city charter is unconstitutional.”
Bellows says it is rare for a city council to table an initiative if a citizen has fulfilled the requirements necessary for it to appear on the ballot, as Johnson did.“Time was of the essence. The city doesn’t have the right to deliberate on petition issues,” continued Bellows. The court’s decision will be released in the coming months.
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