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In tie vote, Amherst Town Council rejects campaign finance changes

  • Amherst Town Hall. FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 19, 2019

AMHERST — A local bylaw that would have capped the amount of money individuals and political action committees can give to candidates running for office at levels significantly below what is allowed by the state will not be in place before November’s town elections.

After extensive debate at Monday’s Town Council meeting — the third time councilors discussed the Limitations on Campaign Contributions Bylaw — the measure failed when the 12 councilors present deadlocked, voting 6-6 on the measure.

Under the proposed bylaw, the maximum contributions would have been set at one-quarter of the $1,000 limit allowed under state law, or $250 from individuals and $125 from PACs.

District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber said he worried about telling candidates and PACs that the state law wasn’t sufficient to handle Amherst elections.

“I don’t see anything exceptional to Amherst (compared to) any other community,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber was joined in voting against the bylaw by At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer, District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, District 3 Councilors Dorothy Pam and George Ryan and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, though, said the bylaw would serve to level the playing field a bit, remove undue influence on local elections and send a message to people of diverse communities that they can run for office without another obstacle in the way.

“It communicates our values as a town. What do we stand for,” Bahl-Milne said.

Bahl-Milne was joined in support by District 3 Councilor Evan Ross and At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who joined together to draft the bylaw, Council President Lynn Griesemer, At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen.

District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz was absent.

After the meeting, Ross issued a statement that he looks forward to bringing the proposal back as part of a larger package of electoral reforms.

“I remain firm in my belief that the current donation limit of $1,000 per person per year is out of scale with the reality of elections in Amherst and advantages those candidates with access to wealthy donor networks,” Ross said.

Ross initially made an amendment to allow bigger donations that would be set at half the state limit, rather than one-quarter the limit, in response to earlier objections that had been raised. This was defeated before the vote on the lower limits.

“Although my personal belief was $250 was acceptable, I want to be responsive to my fellow colleagues on the council who felt it was too low,” Ross said. “To me, this a compromise to what we heard.”

DuMont said the intention of the bylaw is admirable, but the problem of how to get elections reformed is much bigger than just cash. She suggested a “deeper dive” be done to find a means of encouraging a diverse pool of candidates.

“We need to be doing them all simultaneously to level the playing field,” DuMont said.

Learning how to campaign is more important than money, Pam said. She called for political workshops to encourage newcomers to run.

Ryan said the campaign limits seemed too high, observing he set a cap of $100 for donors, but that he didn’t want to dictate to others how they would get campaign money. “I’m uncomfortable making that choice for others,” Ryan said.

Prioritizing this issue was not a good use of the council’s time, Brewer said, adding she is uncomfortable with the council telling people how to campaign.

De Angelis said she would have liked to see higher fines for people who break the campaign finance bylaw and some way to publicize when they exceed the limits.

But Hanneke said the bylaw was a good first step that might encourage people who don’t think they have a chance to compete.

Schoen voted in favor but also cautioned that she continues to feel that it would not do enough to address barriers to entry into elections.

“I’d rather see a work group, a study group, formed to report back in six months with a series of steps,” Schoen said. “This may be a piece of it.”

The discussion on the bylaw reopened a lot of divisiveness that had been left behind on the campaign trail, Steinberg said, describing it as unfortunate to sink back into this debate over the presence of the PAC Amherst Forward, which endorsed some candidates.

Just two residents offered comments.

Amherst resident John Bonifaz, co-founder of Free Speech for People, said limits need to be in place, though he urged the council to not enact limits that are far beyond what ordinary people can afford.

Katherine Appy, co-chairwoman of Amherst Forward, said she supports more rigorous finance limits and that the bylaw was a good first step, calling the proposed changes “sensible refinements” that are “right-sized for Amherst.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.