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City Council Debates Contentious Measure to Limit Campaign Donations by Developers

A proposed amendment being considered by the City Council would limit campaign donations from developers and those who favor development in Cambridge to a maximum of $200.
A proposed amendment being considered by the City Council would limit campaign donations from developers and those who favor development in Cambridge to a maximum of $200. By Quinn G. Perini
By Sarah Girma and Jennifer L. Powley, Contributing Writers

UPDATED: November 11, 2021 at 3:35 p.m.

The Cambridge City Council debated the latest proposed changes to campaign finance in city politics on Monday night.

The proposed amendments include a municipal ordinance that would reduce or limit campaign donations, specifically from donors who are seeking to enter a contract or acquire real estate from the city, in a bid to prevent conflicts of interest in council members’ decisions.

Per the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the maximum yearly contribution from an individual to a candidate cannot exceed $1,000. The proposed amendment would limit donations from developers and those who favor development to a maximum of $200.

The council agreed to defer to the city solicitor and wait until a future meeting to reevaluate the reform.

Several residents argued that the measure is not necessary.

Paul F. Toner — a challenger who won a seat in this November’s election — said he did not believe this is an issue the council needs to address.

“I’m not aware of anybody who has made any decision about a political decision or a policy decision based on donations from any individual or organization,” he said.

Craig A. Kelley, a former city councilor, noted that developers are not the only group of people in the city that donate to campaigns to advance a political agenda.

“If we’re worried about people using money to influence campaign results and influence campaign people, which is the candidates themselves, why one picks solely on developers is a really good question.” he said. “I don’t think it’s about money.”

David E. Sullivan, another resident, also argued the proposed campaign finance reform has more to do with than just money. He argued the amendments are a political ploy to reduce affordable housing development, a point of contention in this year’s election.

“I think the proposed ordinance is not being proposed in good faith,” Sullivan said. “It’s being proposed by people who are trying to make it harder for pro-housing people to participate in Cambridge government.”

If passed, the proposed ordinance would “limit and monitor campaign donations” in municipal elections by those “seeking financial reward from the city.” Sullivan, along with councilors like Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon, argued that the current definition is too vague to be useful.

“Would folks who signed onto these [citizens’ zoning] petitions now be implicated as part of this campaign finance reform, that they would not be able to contribute over $200 to any city council candidate or school committee candidate?” she asked in the Monday meeting.

Sullivan, a long-time lawyer, argued the proposed law is also unconstitutional. The ambiguity in the amendments’ language could be “impermissibly vague,” according to Sullivan.

Additionally, Sullivan argued the ordinance would contradict the First Amendment if passed. Under the Citizens United ruling in 2010, the Supreme Court declared campaign donations as a form of free speech protected under law, so limiting or preventing certain groups of people from donating to candidates because of their views could be ruled unconstitutional.

The council must also receive approval from the Massachusetts State Legislature, as the council itself is not authorized to pass laws relating to campaign finance reform. In order to achieve such local reform, the council must request the legislature to pass a special bill on its behalf that would apply to Cambridge.

This technicality has caused the council to experience delays in campaign finance reform in the past.

Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said during Monday’s meeting that he expects further delays from the state.

“Home Rule petitions are routinely ignored by the legislature, and so we don’t expect that they would actually pass it or even consider it,” Zondervan said. “If we make our ordinance dependent on the Home Rule petition, then nothing will happen.”

Zondervan also called for support from Cambridge residents to help pass the ordinance.

“It’s much harder to do any kind of reform when there isn’t a focus and effort by residents,” he said. “If there isn’t really strong and visible support from the voters and the residents to say, ‘No, we want to see the change,’ then it just doesn’t evolve and that’s what we’ve seen for years.”

CORRECTION: November 11, 2021

A previous version of this article misstated the type of petition to the state legislature that allows Cambridge to take action normally within the state's purview. It is a Home Rule petition, not a homeowner petition.

—Staff writer Sarah Girma can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SarahGirma_.

—Staff writer Jennifer L. Powley can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JenniferlPowley.

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