Proponents of a statewide public multiple listing service in Maine are working to qualify a ballot initiative for an election in 2008, and the state Realtor trade group is prepared to fight if the signature drive is successful.

The Maine Association of Realtors operates a statewide MLS, the Maine Real Estate Information System Inc., as a subsidiary. The MLS has about 5,200 subscribers.

David Barry, a San Francisco lawyer, in December 2005 launched a similar effort to introduce a ballot measure in California establishing an “Open MLS,” though that effort was abandoned. Barry, who established the Open MLS Institute, a nonprofit corporation that has sought to create a nationwide MLS system that is open to the public, is well known in the industry for the many antitrust lawsuits he has filed against Realtor groups.

Most of these legal challenges were not decided in his clients’ favor, and Barry is the target of a California Association of Realtors lawsuit that alleges malicious prosecution for filing several similar lawsuits involving the association. Barry has contended that the court actions were separate matters.

He is also a part of Trust MLS, a group that is supporting the Maine ballot initiative and encourages supporters in other states to pursue similar measures. This group, along with real estate companies Redfin, Catalist Homes and Voyager 360, among others, had offered financial support to the institute, and Trust MLS plans to submit a bid to operate the proposed public Open MLS system.

Trust MLS includes lawyers and people with real estate industry experience, including Mark Jansen, a former CEO for RE InfoLink, a regional MLS in California’s Silicon Valley.

Stavros Mendros, a city councilman and former state legislator in Lewiston, Maine, filed the Open MLS initiative statement in Maine.

The Trust MLS Web site states that the Open MLS initiative in Maine was intended for the November 2007 election, though proponents did not submit signatures by the Jan. 25 deadline. Barry said that proponents have collected about 25,000 signatures so far, or roughly half of the necessary signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

“The California experience was just a dry run. Now we’re going to go to a state where we can win,” he said. He said that a fundamental problem with the existing MLS structure is that the public seems left out. “Why does the public put up with it? I realized no one ever asked them if they wanted something different,” he said. “The public reviles the current system.”

Most consumers, he said, don’t have any idea how real estate agents get paid, and an Open MLS system could function like a public utility and would provide more transparency in publicly reporting compensation offered in real estate transactions and could serve to drive down commissions.

While the statewide MLS in Maine is an improvement over the patchwork system of many local MLSs that operate in most states, Barry said it is still a system that is largely closed to the public. “I don’t support the Realtor associations and I’m going to show a better way,” he said.

The operator of the proposed MLS must charge a $20 to $50 per-month subscription fee to participants who enter information at the site, and the company offering the lowest bid will get the contract to operate the system for the first 10 years.

According to a Maine Association of Realtors announcement, any signatures that the proponents collected since they began their effort in July 2006 will be valid for one year.

“Like any initiative proposal, there is reason to expect that it will get on the ballot during 2007 for the 2008 election and we expect them to continue toward that goal in the coming months,” the association announced. “The threat has not gone away, it has simply been postponed.”

The Realtor group charged a $200 special assessment to its members to raise money to oppose the Open MLS initiative and to assist the association with other issues of concern, such as “mandatory chimney inspections, proposed mandatory sprinklers, essential wildlife habitat regulations, drinking water supply regulations,” and other matters.

Linda Gifford, a lawyer for the Maine Realtors group, said she was not aware whether any of the special assessment money has been spent related to the Open MLS proposal. “We’re just in somewhat of a wait-and-see mode,” she said, adding that the association will actively oppose the proposal if it reaches the ballot. “We would see it as a threat to what we’ve run successfully as a business.”

While the association is open to other MLS competitors, Gifford said that the initiative proposal “appears to take on an aura of governmental protection.” As the ballot initiative did not qualify for the 2007 ballot, Gifford said there are many more pressing political issues for the state association. “This is a tiny blip,” she said.

The Open MLS initiative would create a privately operated directory of for-sale and rental properties “that is freely viewable by anyone and that accepts listings by real estate agents and homeowners,” and would require real estate agents to list a home in the directory at the seller’s request. This public database would be free for visitors to search online, and visitors “may download the entire open MLS database once every 24 hours for free and may redistribute such data without compensation to anyone,” the initiative states.

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