Cambridge councilors revisited the subject of publicly financed elections at Monday's meeting, one week after the municipal election. But if the city wants to move forward with making elections publicly funded, it would have to apply for a home rule petition from the state Legislature, according to the city solicitor.
Nancy Glowa told council she was notified by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s Office that allocating funds to candidates would constitute a change in campaign regulations. The council had asked City Manager Louis DePasquale to explore possible options for creating a program that uses tax revenue to fund the campaigns of those running for both the council and School Committee. The request came after two contentious debates over the issue in September and August when the council considered a nonbinding ballot question on the issue.
Councilor Leland Cheung exercised his charter right during the August meeting, delaying the vote on the proposed question. At the time, Cheung said he supported the idea of publicly financed elections, but thought the way the question was framed insinuated that elected officials in Cambridge were corrupted by special interest funds.
The delay moved the vote past a deadline to put it on the ballot without requiring the petitioners to, as Councilor Nadeem Mazen said at the time, obtain “a vast number” of signatures to present to the Election Commission.
Glowa said the Attorney General’s Office said that Cambridge would be “well advised to obtain special legislation in order to implement a public funding scheme for local candidates if that is what the City Council desires.”
Mazen said he wondered whether the Attorney General would actually sue the city to stop it from creating a system of publicly financed elections.
“It is certainly the nature of state organization and the Attorney General to, I don’t want to say posture, but certainly to extend their reach as far as possible into our domain,” Mazen said. “They would never, under any situation, say, ‘Go for it.’”
Mazen said he thought it would be “prudent” for the council to avoid applying for a home rule petition if possible because the state Legislature has not been supportive of publicly financed elections in the past.
“The State House has in the past had public financing before it, and has done everything in its power to avoid public options and the appearance of supporting public options,” Mazen said. “Presumably because they think it destabilizes their own fundraising, or their own election prospects."
“This would seem to me to be a conflict of interest in regulating their own affairs,” he added. “It also seems like something that would affect their regulation of our affairs. I think it’s worth avoiding.”