By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
In my inaugural address, I called upon the Board of Aldermen to pass the most restrictive campaign finance legislation in Massachusetts. Seven aldermen co-sponsored a proposal I submitted to the Board last May, while the remaining members of the board co-sponsored a similar bill put forth by Board President Bill White. These two proposals, taken up by the Board this week, show that I and the Board of Aldermen are united in our purpose to deliver a government that is open, honest and transparent. Our taxpayers deserve the reassurance that our government is accountable to one value and one value only: What’s best for the people of our city.
Sixteen years ago, when I was an alderman myself, Mayor Mike Capuano put forth an ethics and financial disclosure ordinance that the Board passed, and it set a standard for not only our community but for Massachusetts. Just as we worked together on that proposal, mayors and aldermen past and present have worked together to push back against our city’s previous reputation of inside politics that were infiltrated by outside forces. We fought against that reputation and changed it through increased transparency, more community involvement and creating a shared vision for our city.
Today, we have a different reputation. We’ve won awards from Common Cause for the information we make readily available to the public. In October, we earned the highest form of recognition in governmental accounting and financial reporting for our comprehensive annual financial report, which demonstrated a spirit of full disclosure. Through SomerStat and our ResiStat meetings, we share data about the city that increases both our transparency and our efficiency in delivering the services that residents rely on. We’ve taken our planning out to the public, with our Somerville by Design meetings carrying on the legacy that began with SomerVision.
The proposed campaign finance legislation before the Board of Aldermen would allow for more accountability, remove any erroneous perception of a “pay-to-play” environment and further reassure our community that our decisions are made fully in the public interest and driven by our community’s values. This ordinance would set limits for campaign contributions made to any candidate or incumbent for public office in the City of Somerville by developers, contractors, lobbyists or individuals and organizations seeking to do business with the city. That includes city contracts not awarded to the lowest bidder and anyone seeking financial assistance from the city, such as grants, loans or tax incentives.
Applicants who made contributions to an elected official or candidate in excess of $250 in the calendar year of an application or year prior, under my proposal, would be ineligible for any such contract or financial assistance unless contributions were refunded in full. Any applicant, anyone attributed to the applicant—including family members and business partners—and any subcontractor used on any contract, with the exception of the lowest bidder contracts, would be restricted from making any contribution in excess of $250 per year, for the following four calendar years or for the duration of the term of any contract, whichever is longer. Also, lobbyists and municipal agents would be required to file annual disclosure statements and give notice as to any matter pending before the city. President White’s similar proposed ordinance would cap contributions at $300.
Passing this legislation would reaffirm to the public that there are no backroom deals or side deals in Somerville, and that we conduct an open, effective and honest government on their behalf. The City holds a firm commitment to transparency through the way we manage and through the public processes that we’ve expanded exponentially over the years. We open our spending, our public meetings, our planning and more to public scrutiny. We welcome and encourage that scrutiny. Campaign finances and contributions—especially those related to those doing business with the city—should be subject to that same public scrutiny.
Passing this ordinance is just one step I want us to take this year. As I announced in my inaugural address, I will also propose an expansion of our city’s ethics ordinance so that Somerville has the toughest ethics laws in Massachusetts that will apply to every elected official, ensuring accountability and equal access to city government. Everyone should have the same opportunities, not based on who they know, but on the merits. We are already a model for the Commonwealth in myriad areas. We should be a model for Massachusetts in openness and transparency, too.