Cape & Islands lawmakers file bill to shine light on dark money spending at Town Meetings
Cyr and Fernandes aim to close loophole allowing unaccountable political spending to sway town voters
(Boston – 10/17/23) Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) and Representative Dylan Fernandes (D-Falmouth) filed legislation that would establish transparency and accountability for any dollars spent to influence voters at Town Meetings. The legislation, SD.2804/HD.4628 An Act relative to dark money in local government, would close a longstanding loophole in Massachusetts campaign and political finance law that has allowed unfettered political influence on warrant articles before voters at Town Meetings.
“Political spending on issues before Town Meetings should be required to follow the same rules of the road as candidates, ballot questions, and other political campaigns,” said Senator Julian Cyr. “It’s bewildering and distressing that people with deep pockets and financial interests think they can buy their way into our local governance. We’re done with monied interests trying to sway town politics on the Cape and Islands; voters deserve to know who is behind campaigns seeking to influence local policies that will impact those of us who live here year-round. Our robust laws on political spending have served the Commonwealth’s representative democracy well for a half century — those should apply to lobbying at Town Meeting.”
“Local policy decisions should be made by town residents but a glaring loophole in the law allows for unfettered and unlimited spending by large outside groups and corporations to influence small town decisions,” said Representative Dylan Fernandes. “This legislation dams the flow of pervasive dark money in town meetings that too often drowns out the voices of local residents.”
The state campaign finance law, codified at Chapter 55 of the Massachusetts General Laws, has stringent requirements, including disclosure requirements, for any group that receives financial contributions with the purpose of opposing or promoting a ballot question or influencing an election. Candidates for public office at both the state and local level also must follow strict requirements, including contribution limits and disclosure requirements. However, due to an omission in the statute, these disclosure and transparency requirements do not apply to groups seeking to influence issues that are taken up at Town Meetings and do not appear before voters on a ballot, such as warrant articles. An Act relative to dark money in local government comes 50 years after the state’s campaign and political finance laws were first established in 1973.
Towns on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket have seen an unprecedented level of financial and political expenditures on matters before Town Meetings, with a worrisome increase of spending and engagement by non-voter interests in recent years. On Nantucket, off-island investors have tried to influence Town Meeting measures related to short-term rentals and housing. At the Provincetown Town Meeting this spring, an anonymous group called Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions sent out texts and mailers advocating against several short-term rental articles. Last week, mailers were sent to Truro voters from a group referred to as Take Back Truro that campaigned against local public works and housing initiatives.
“Enough is enough,” said Cyr. “We’ve seen it on the Islands, we’ve seen it in Provincetown, and now we see the same dark money spending in my hometown, Truro. Cape Codders and Islanders need transparency and accountability in the face of this onslaught of political campaigns from groups unknown to residents. Voters deserve to be able to make informed choices for the benefit of our year-round community, not off-Cape and off-Island seasonal interests.”
A Town Meeting serves as the legislative branch for most municipal governments in Massachusetts. There are two forms of Town Meeting, open and representative. At an open Town Meeting, all eligible voters in a town may gather annually to vote on matters. Comparatively, at a representative Town Meeting, voters elect Town Meeting Members who then vote on the rest of the Town Meeting issues. Both open and representative Town Meetings are currently excluded from Massachusetts’ campaign finance law. As a result, there is no oversight of what any group of people can do regarding advocacy efforts for or against matters before a Town Meeting. Cyr and Fernandes have filed this legislation to establish full transparency and traceability of political and campaign funds spent to influence matters before Town Meetings.