A number of Amherst supporters of progressive democracy reform were disappointed in the town council’s recent defeat of a bylaw that would have limited campaign contributions from individuals and PACs to candidates for public office in Amherst, proposed by Councilors Mandi-Jo Hanneke (at large) and Even Ross (District 4). The 6 – 6 tie vote, with 1 person absent, meant that it was defeated. Although I strongly support the intentions of disappointed money-and-politics reform supporters, I feel the proposal could have been better crafted and stronger.
At least three of the Councilors voting against the bylaw did so because they thought it was not strong enough. In conversations, they expressed concern that the penalties for violating the proposed contribution limits were not adequate, and that the bylaw needed to be considered in the context of other issues related to the influence of special interests. Furthermore, the bylaw was brought forward in what seemed to potential supporters to be out of the blue. People didn’t see it coming, and therefore Councilors had not been contacted by constituents in support. Given the Council’s extraordinarily frenetic schedule, it was easy for those on the fence or those surprised by the bylaw to vote no.
Because of previous efforts to advance money-and-politics reform, I know there is enormous support for this among Amherst voters. Last year I collected over 200 signatures for a more comprehensive measure that never made it through the legislative process. I am hopeful that Hanneke and Ross will bring another, more comprehensive proposal back again and with significantly greater popular support. The Council has demonstrated responsiveness to public pressure; the public needs to become more skilled in using it.
These money-and-politics issues raise very complicated matters; legal navigation is complicated thanks to our Supreme Court which equates political spending with free speech and sees corporations as individuals having constitutional protection, including free speech protection. The best reform in light of Supreme Court precedent is public financing. But without a source of funding that doesn’t undermine Town operating expenses, public financing is not viable for a small municipality like Amherst. The Council needs to take a step back, perhaps establish a study group, in order to pass a more comprehensive proposal, coupling campaign contribution limitations with strong disclosure requirements, limitations on Super PACs, and stronger enforcement. The rest of us need to organize the public to support the next version of the initiative.