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City Councilors Frustrated By Delays in Campaign Finance Reform

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Cambridge City Councilors voiced their frustration over a months-long delay in addressing two amendments to campaign finance regulations at an Ordinance Committee meeting Monday.

The first proposed amendment originated as a policy order in October 2020 and sought to restrict campaign donations by people “seeking to enter into a contract, seeking approval for a special permit or up-zoning, seeking to acquire real estate from the city, or seeking financial assistance from the city.”

This ordinance amendment was based off of Somerville’s campaign contribution ordinance “Pay to Play” and also includes language from similar ordinances passed in New Jersey.

The second proposed amendment would restrict annual donations to any individual candidate to $200 per person and was referred to the Ordinance Committee in November.

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Councilor Dennis J. Carlone, who co-sponsored the first amendment, repeatedly said he was “frustrated” with the review process, arguing that the wording should have been worked out months ago. Carlone also pointed out that this process should have been expedited since the amendment was based on Somerville’s ordinance.

“If it doesn’t work, I’m all for refining it, I didn’t expect that in this meeting,” he said. “I think it’s really inappropriate. This meeting has been turned over now to not talk about substance, but to talk about details that should have been worked on months ago.”

Other Councilors agreed.

Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said he “deeply shares [Carlone’s] frustration,” adding that he didn’t “even know where to begin.”

Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler also said he was confused why Cambridge did not reach out to Somerville for its legal analysis, given the Somerville campaign finance reform ordinance passed.

“This was passed by policy order a few months ago now,” he said. “We could have reached out if our legal department needed help. We could have reached out as Councilors to Somerville and gotten that analysis. It’s all public.”

Proposals for campaign finance reform have been in the works since 2016, Carlone said, but every policy order has fallen through or been met with “no response.”

Arthur J. Goldberg, the city’s deputy solicitor, said that under the state’s constitution, cities and towns do not have the power to regulate their elections, and regulating campaign donations would fall under that category. Goldberg recommended requesting a Home Rule Petition from the state legislature, which would allow Massachusetts to pass the necessary changes for Cambridge, given that the state has the power to regulate elections.

Massachusetts, however, does not approve many Home Rule Petitions, according to Carlone.

“I think if this goes into a Home Rule, forget it,” he said. “The Home Rule — I think — is dead in the water.”

Several Councilors, including Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon, said they were confused over why Cambridge’s proposed ordinance would violate the state’s constitution if Somerville passed a similar policy.

“This does have different provisions than the Somerville ordinance,” Goldberg responded. “But I can’t really speak for Somerville’s thinking on the matter, I can only tell you what we think.”

The committee unanimously passed Carlone’s motion to request the City's Law Department review the first ordinance and recommend any edits, while the second ordinance will be sent to the City Council with no recommendations.

—Staff writer David R. Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidrwshaw.

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