PROVINCETOWN — Leading up to the April 3 annual town meeting, texting campaigns both for and against three controversial petitioned articles proposing short-term rental regulations landed in the phones of voters.
On Saturday, April 1, an anonymous text went out that read, “The citizens’ petitions on short-term rentals need more work… Vote NO on Articles 18, 19, and 20.” It directed voters to a website that said it was sponsored by “Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions.” No one’s name or address was given. (The website, provincetownmeeting.com, is no longer live.)
The petitioners of the articles, Michael Gaucher and Paul Benson (who is a staff reporter for the Independent), sent out texts of their own on Sunday promoting the articles and encouraging voters to attend town meeting. The two sent about 2,000 texts using the campaign communications platform OneSwitchboard, Benson said.
A final text came on Monday morning from “Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions” about the provision in Article 18, proposed by Gaucher, to limit rental certificates to one per owner. Gaucher has stated he is in the process of relinquishing five short-term rental certificates he holds for the Lucy Cross guest house.
“Article 18 would create a monopoly for the petitioner,” the text said. “Do not let them amend [the short-term rental articles] on Town Meeting floor,” it added.
At a March 13 select board meeting, Ryan Castle, CEO of the Cape and Islands Association of Realtors, objected to the three articles. Asked if he was involved in the anonymous text campaign and website, Castle refused to answer.
According to Jason Tait, communications director for the Mass. Office of Campaign and Political Finance, state law does not cover political activity related to town meeting warrant articles and there are no organizational filings or financial disclosures required.
Provincetown Town Clerk Elizabeth Paine confirmed that there are no municipal regulations on political activity about warrant articles, and she said that no such groups had filed papers with the town. “They are only required to file if it pertains to a ballot question,” said Paine, “not articles at town meeting.”
The town clerk noted an increase in questions directed to her office leading up to and in the aftermath of the April 3 events. “I feel like we have a whole new group of people that are becoming more involved in civic engagement,” she said, citing rising attendance at town meeting.
State Sen. Julian Cyr told the Independent he was “rather surprised” to learn that political activity on warrant articles is not subject to the same rules and regulations as campaigns for elected office or for ballot questions, which require disclosures of donors, expenditures, and the people spending the money.
“In several of the communities that I represent, most notably Nantucket, there’s been a number of interests who have spent money in support or in opposition to articles before town meeting,” Cyr said. “I am seeing a pattern where entities and individuals who are not voters in the town but who do have an interest in it, often financial, are putting a thumb on the scales of our local self-governance. The lack of transparency is disturbing.”
The state law governing campaign and political activity largely resembles the version that was introduced in 1973. “I think this really calls into question whether we need to update that 1973 statute,” Cyr said. He said his office is in talks with the general counsel at the Office for Campaign and Political Finance and is considering legislation to bring warrant activity under OCPF’s regulatory umbrella.