Nantucket's state representatives are taking aim at so-called "dark money" that they say is influencing voters at Town Meetings on Cape Cod and the islands.
The legislation filed by state Sen. Julian Cyr and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes would close a longstanding loophole in state campaign and political finance law that allows "unfettered political influence on warrant articles before voters at Town Meetings," the lawmakers stated on Tuesday as they announced the bill.
The Massachusetts campaign finance law includes strict requirements and rules mandating disclosure for candidates running for office and groups receiving contributions to lobby for or against proposed ballot questions. But those requirements do not apply to individuals, groups, or businesses seeking to influence warrant articles taken up by voters at Town Meetings.
A recent example on the island was the shadowy group called The Alliance To Protect Nantucket's Economy, which emerged on the island in 2020 to counter ACK Now’s bid to regulate and restrict short-term rentals. Over the next three years, it became a major force in the ongoing debate, funneling thousands of dollars into advertisements and paid studies which helped defeat ACK Now’s Article 60 at the 2023 Annual Town Meeting. Yet the group listed no leadership, individual members, or other organizations on its website. It is not a registered corporation or non-profit group, and in advocating against a Town Meeting warrant article, it was not required to report any of its expenditures to the town or state. Only a story in Nantucket Current alerted the community to the fact that the organization was founded by The Copley Group, the Boston-based real estate firm that operates a dozen short-term vacation rental properties on Nantucket.
“Political spending on issues before Town Meetings should be required to follow the same rules of the road as candidates, ballot questions, and other political campaigns,” Cyr said. “It’s bewildering and distressing that people with deep pockets and financial interests think they can buy their way into our local governance. We’re done with monied interests trying to sway town politics on the Cape and Islands; voters deserve to know who is behind campaigns seeking to influence local policies that will impact those of us who live here year-round. Our robust laws on political spending have served the Commonwealth’s representative democracy well for a half-century — those should apply to lobbying at Town Meeting.”
Beyond the efforts on Nantucket to influence votes on proposed short-term rental regulations, Cyr and Fernandes pointed to Provincetown's Town Meeting this spring, when they said an anonymous group called Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions sent out texts and mailers advocating against several short-term rental articles. They also called out the recent mailers sent to Truro voters from a group referred to as Take Back Truro that campaigned against local public works and housing initiatives.
“Local policy decisions should be made by town residents but a glaring loophole in the law allows for unfettered and unlimited spending by large outside groups and corporations to influence small town decisions,” Fernandes said. “This legislation dams the flow of pervasive dark money in town meetings that too often drowns out the voices of local residents.”
A Town Meeting serves as the legislative branch for most municipal governments in Massachusetts. There are two forms of Town Meeting, open and representative. At an open Town Meeting, all eligible voters in a town may gather annually to vote on matters. Comparatively, at a representative Town Meeting, voters elect Town Meeting Members who then vote on the rest of the Town Meeting issues. Both open and representative Town Meetings are currently excluded from Massachusetts’ campaign finance law.
As a result, the island's representatives stated Tuesday, there is no oversight of what any group of people can do regarding advocacy efforts for or against matters before a Town Meeting. The legislation, Cyr and Fernandes said, is an effort to establish full transparency and traceability of political and campaign funds spent to influence matters before Town Meetings.
“Enough is enough,” said Cyr. “We’ve seen it on the Islands, we’ve seen it in Provincetown, and now we see the same dark money spending in my hometown, Truro. Cape Codders and Islanders need transparency and accountability in the face of this onslaught of political campaigns from groups unknown to residents. Voters deserve to be able to make informed choices for the benefit of our year-round community, not off-Cape and off-Island seasonal interests.”