Council hearing eyes potential reforms to campaign finance

Spurred on by recent corruption scandals here and in states across the country, City Councillor at-Large Sam Yoon pressed a little-discussed issue in Boston city politics in a city council hearing last Thursday: campaign finance reform.

It’s not surprising that he would. As a challenger to Mayor Thomas Menino in this year’s election, Yoon’s campaign war chest does not add up to even a tenth of what Menino’s does. And as Yoon readily points out, a healthy chunk of Menino’s funding comes from developers, contractors, attorneys and others with business before the city, including some whose companies have contracts directly from the city.

“It’s not a proper representation of the occupations of regular people,” said Yoon of Menino’s long list of donors in an interview before the hearing. “I don’t think you have to analyze it, it’s obvious. It’s just well known in politics that you have to pay to play.”

Just a hasty search of Menino’s donor records at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance found some local coincidences of city contracts and Menino campaign donations, though one can only guess at any causal connection.

One is the Susi family, which has given Menino a total of $25,500 in $500 donations from several family members since 2005. The family’s Mario Susi & Sons Co. is consistently awarded public works contracts from the city.

Another is Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., an urban planning firm which regularly takes contracts from the Boston Redevelopment Authority—including one for the Columbia Point Master Plan. VHB executives have given Menino a combined $7,950 since 2005. The BRA is a quasi-governmental agency, but Menino has the power to hire or fire its director.
These contractors are well within the law now, but Yoon conjectures that if you disallow or limit donations from contractors with the city and from city workers, it would do a lot to even the playing field for challengers.
One of the strongest “pay to play” laws addressing this issue was passed in New Jersey in 2004. Among other things, it prohibits no-bid contracts to any entity whose owners made a reportable contribution to any elected member of the municipal government awarding the contract or the municipal committee of any elected member’s political party.

The donations from city contractors, Yoon said, are one of the reasons an incumbent Boston mayor hasn’t been beaten by a challenger since the twilight of James M. Curley’s political career in 1949.

“The playing field isn’t level,” said Yoon. “We know the vital role that money plays in any election and when the playing field is so badly in favor of the incumbent, real challenges are far and few in between.”

Yoon’s ultimate solution is the public financing of campaigns, a controversial idea that gives taxpayer funds to candidates who can show widespread support via signatures and small donations. But he admits that the idea isn’t feasible here in the short term. More practical solutions might be a “pay to play” law, he said, or one that limits what one candidate can hold over in his or her campaign account from one election to another.

But the hearing, which attracted only four people to the council chambers to testify and maybe six or seven others to watch, might have served more to open the door on the complexities of campaign finance than to clear a path towards any reform.

Councillor Maureen Feeney, controlling the hearing as chair of the Committee on Government Operations, said she was confused as to why the council would even debate such a thing.
“It strikes me as a state instruction that we as city officers would comply with,” she said, adding that any ordinance the council might put forth would have to also be passed by the state legislature as a home rule petition to become law.

“It would be a first for a municipal government,” admitted Pamela Wilmot of Common Cause, one of the testifiers and a staunch supporter of campaign finance reform. “We would have to submit it as a home rule petition, and you may not succeed because other things that Cambridge has brought up… have not passed.”

In fact, a bill addressing pay to play has already been introduced in the state legislature. Though it would only apply to state elected officials, its passage would be a jumping-off point for extending its reach to town and city governments. Feeney said she’d be more interested in seeing how that bill fares before voting for a home rule petition from the council.

Presented by state Sen. James Eldridge of Acton, the Massachusetts pay to play bill would ban the awarding of contracts to contractors whose principals have donated to candidates or their committees. It would also require all state contractors to record who their principal owners are with the OCPF.

Dorchester’s David Ortiz, director of Mass Vote, said during his testimony that despite the challenges of a home rule petition, Boston may need to lead on the issue by putting one forth anyway.

“While the state has been behind in things, the city has been ahead. Seeing the city talk about this reaffirms to me that the city is still ahead,” he said. “Even if the state doesn’t support these things, we have to take our chances.”

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