Imposing a limit on contributions to candidates is an appealing idea. We don’t want our new Town Council to be as corrupted by money as the U.S. Congress is.
But I think the Select Board should heed the advice of the Town’s attorneys and reject calls for a special Town Meeting to establish limits on donations before the Town Council is seated.
Meg Gage served on the Charter Commission with me and opposed the recommendations that were overwhelmingly approved by voters on March 27. She is organizing a petition drive to call a special Town Meeting to limit individual contributions to $250 a year and ban accepting more than $5,000 a year from a political action committee.
If she had proposed last year that a limit on individual donations be part of the charter itself, I probably would have supported her, and I think other members of the commission’s majority would have as well. But now that the charter is in effect, we have to abide by its provision that Town Meeting can rule only on matters “not admitting of delay,” and “essential and necessary to the current operations of the Town, such as the annual budget.” The charter specifies that the Select Board is the “sole judge” of what is that urgent.
Gage wants the Select Board to call the special Town Meeting for September, but by then the primary election will already have taken place, and the remaining candidates will be preparing for the November election. Many of the contributions to candidates will have already been made. So why not wait until the Town Council is seated and propose campaign contribution limits then?
We’ll have a much better sense after the first Town Council campaign of whether or not Big Money in local elections is a problem. My guess is that it won’t be.
First, council candidates won’t need a lot of money beyond the cost of brochures, lawn signs and newspaper ads. They won’t buy expensive TV ads, and candidates for district council seats will get more votes from knocking on doors and meeting their neighbors than by soliciting big contributions.
Second, all contributions over $50 will be public. Any candidate who’s tempted to accept a large contribution from someone who will have business before the Town Council will probably conclude that its disclosure would raise too many eyebrows and cost him or her votes.
Third, raising a lot of money is no guarantee of success. Peter Demling beat Jennifer Page in the School Committee race last year even though Page raised more money. Ashli Stempel won a council seat in Greenfield last year while spending one-tenth as much as her opponent. As I wrote in this blog post, the average amount spent by six progressive council candidates who were elected in Greenfield was only $782.
Some charter opponents are worried that council candidates who are supported by the same group that endorsed the change in government will receive large contributions. But that’s the opposite of what happened in the charter campaign. As I reported in this blog post, it was actually the “no” side that received the biggest donations.
The pro-charter group’s average donation this year was only $67, while the “no” side received half of its money from just nine large donors. Last year, the pro-charter group took in $3,376 in donations under $50, while the opponents received $5,000 from just four people.
Candidates for Town Council should be judged on their experience, their integrity, their ability to work with others, their capacity for processing information, and their vision for the future of Amherst — not their ability to raise money. And there should be a place on the council for newcomers with energy and good ideas but few financial resources. But now is not the right time to limit campaign contributions.
The state already imposes a limit of $1,000 on individual contributions, and Northampton imposes a stricter limit for local elections. We could too.
When I told a man collecting signatures on Meg Gage’s petition that the charter says that special Town Meetings can be called only for urgent matters, he said that the charter isn’t in effect yet. That’s not true. The charter is in effect, and until the Town Council is seated, we are bound by its transition section, which spells out the circumstances under which a special session of Town Meeting can be called.
Gage will argue that it is urgent to limit campaign contributions. I think calling a special Town Meeting would violate the charter, and it makes more sense to wait and see if this is a problem.