City passes campaign finance reform law, overcoming attempt to wait for legislative approval

City Councilor Dennis Carlone, seen in January 2020 (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

After years of effort, Councilor Dennis Carlone was awarded a campaign finance reform ordinance spent Monday with a 7-1-1 vote.

The latest version of the law had been in the works for 14 months, and Carlone was part of two previous campaign finance reform attempts he said had “died in pieces” since joining the council in 2013.

“Now is the time,” Carlone said.

The law limits campaign contributions from people doing business with city hall to $ 200 per year per candidate, affecting those who apply for a special permit or overzoning, their families, and their employees – but not those who sign a petition to approve. its review, a concern cited by some advisers. . In other limitations clarified in recent weeks, the law enacted Monday does not apply to unions or “affiliates” of those it limits to $ 200 in donations. The state limit is $ 1,000 for individuals.

The onus is on the business candidates, not the politicians; Applicants must file publicly visible disclosures and may be denied their contract unless a violating contribution is returned by the politician who obtained it.

Development debate

One of the reasons Carlone struggled to get the law passed: his role as a development agent, stemming from allegations in the last election that some politicians are funded by builders and others with vested interests. real estate and will vote in the interest of developers.

This conflict unfolded in abbreviated form ahead of the vote, as City Councilor Marc McGovern reiterated a key objection to the proposed law: to downzone, even though both could benefit financially – in the downzoner’s case, by a increase in the value of the property of an existing house. “We should limit all money in politics, not just some people’s money because we don’t like what they stand for,” McGovern said.

Although Carlone stubbornly points to the ordinance as it applies to “anyone seeking to do business with the city,” the debate has often ended in familiar lines of fights over zoning and development, even. when these questions are largely unspoken.

Objections and alternatives

Critics from residents, mainly those associated with A Better Cambridge, the city’s most powerful issues group and political action committee, were likely to characterize the law as poorly worded, convoluted, vague and vulnerable to challenge. judicial. These criticisms were echoed by councilors sometimes seen as development-funded or supportive of efforts to weaken conservation districts and neighborhood groups, which are seen as filled with landlords who resist development. When the current order was taken at the December 6 board meeting, E. Denise Simmons said she did not support the spirit of the change and suggested that it “needs to be considered further”, although that it went through an ordinances committee process.

“We are now after the elections, we certainly have enough time [and could take] a good three to six months to really analyze this, ”Simmons suggested.

City councilors opposed to the law suggested limiting campaign contributions to $ 200 across the board, which the Legal Department said would violate the First Amendment.

Advice from the legal department

The Legal Department has maintained an independent approach to campaign reform over the years, including ignoring political orders asking it to draft the law, Carlone said. This borrows some language from a law Somerville passed in 2016 and was reviewed and approved by the town’s lawyer, but that hasn’t stopped criticism of its construction or wording. This included city lawyer Nancy Glowa herself, who always reminded councilors that “this is not our language in the first place.”

The final hurdle faced by the law was whether it should go to the state legislature for legal support and delayed until such time as the state gave its blessing. While refusing to assess whether another city’s law was more immune to legal challenge – Deputy Mayor Alanna Mallon has repeatedly argued Cambridge should have roughly cut and paste the law of Somerville – Glowa has indicated that a self-reliance petition is needed. Mallon, citing Glowa, said it would be “unwise” not to do so. “We have been told many times that if we put this in place it will be challenged and they will win. So this language protects us, ”Mallon said.

Other advisers said it wasn’t quite fair – that Glowa had in fact said that any campaign finance law should go to the Legislature, whether copied directly from Somerville or adapted and completed by Carlone.

Home Rule Petitions

But the distinction didn’t matter. Most advisers said they saw the autonomy petition process as the place where Cambridge laws must die, including Mallon.

“This particular amendment essentially kills the law,” Zondervan said Monday.

The lawyer also previously advised against passing laws without a petition on house rules and was struck down by the council, Sobrinho-Wheeler noted, highlighting a law allowing live acoustic music in non-traditional performance spaces such as stores and prohibiting police from using tear gas. and other crowd control chemicals. In both cases, Mallon voted for the law without a house rule petition, in defiance of the town lawyer.

Even retired councilor Tim Toomey thought “we’re going to face a legal challenge anyway,” and when the amendment passed it failed: Mallon, McGovern, Simmons and Toomey backed him, but needed one more vote. A related political ordinance for a petition on the domestic regime that would not affect the enactment of the Campaign Reform Law was permanently tabled by unanimous vote.

When the Campaign Reform Law was put to a vote without the need to go to the Legislature, it was passed with only Toomey against. Simmons voted “present”.

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