Amherst councilors balk at proposal to further cap campaign contributions

  • Councilor Dorothy Pam called the proposed limits too low, saying they would only help wealthier candidates. submitted photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2019 5:30:01 PM
Modified: 6/6/2019 5:29:51 PM

AMHERST — A proposal to cap contributions from individuals and political action committees to local candidates could be doomed, with several town councilors saying this week they are skeptical that such limits would encourage political newcomers to run for office.

At the Town Council’s first extended discussion on the campaign finance bylaw Monday, presented by District 4 Councilor Evan Ross and At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke last month, several councilors said they wouldn’t support the limits, which would set the maximum contributions at one-quarter of the $1,000 limit allowed under state law, or $250 from individuals and $125 from PACs.

“This could be a barrier to a new candidate coming forward,” said At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg.

As a former member of the Select Board, Steinberg said there could be candidates for public office who need more significant financial help from a single person.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said the council should be trying to make entry easier for political novices and that one way to do so is to not limit the financial backing they may need.

The bylaw, which will be voted on at the June 17 meeting, is modeled after a similar ordinance adopted by Northampton in 2015.

“This does not level the playing field,” said District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont, who added that there is only one official PAC, Amherst Forward, and that it is hard to calculate some of the benefits its endorsed candidates received, such as voter lists. DuMont was not endorsed by Amherst Forward.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam was most vocal in her opposition, arguing that the limits are too low and would prevent participation from someone without political experience who may depend on more financial help to become known.

There are also no limits on personal use of money, meaning that a wealthier candidate has a built-in advantage. “I’m saying I don’t think it would work,” Pam said. 

District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber also said he is also opposed. He suggested that it might be more effective to cap total contributions, and that officials might be better off trying to change state law rather than pursuing local efforts.

Schreiber added that there is evidence that the bylaw might restrict the pool of candidates, rather than enlarging and diversifying it.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said that lowering the limits might also mean candidates have to turn to less expensive places to get their campaign signs and print their campaign literature. This could mean buying local is discouraged.

Ross said the bylaw should be seen as one element of a larger strategy to fix elections and that councilors should focus on whether the $1,000 limit at the state level is too high for Amherst. 

But District 3 Councilor George Ryan said he was struggling to see a problem in Amherst elections that needs to be fixed.

Hanneke responded by noting that several years ago, Town Meeting failed to enact form-based code zoning bylaw, which would have provided guidance to developers of large-scale projects. Now, One East Pleasant and Kendrick Place have been built without that type of direction.

“Sometimes if you wait until it’s a problem, it’s too late,” Hanneke said.

Only two residents offered feedback.

Jennifer Page of Potwine Lane said the cap is too low and misguided and that it will not increase the number of candidates. She saidthere are more effective ways to encourage people to run for office.

Julian Hines of High Street, though, said he liked that the bylaw would prevent people from giving too much money to candidates. “This is a good first step, but only the first step,” Hines said.

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

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