PROVINCETOWN — For 50 years, Massachusetts has maintained strict campaign finance laws for contests up and down the ballot, from select board seats to statewide ballot initiatives. Yet a hallmark of the state’s democratic tradition has been left out of that system, says Cape and Islands state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro, and it’s one that is crucial to civic life on the Outer Cape: town meeting.
The state’s campaign finance regulations do not apply to groups that seek to influence voters’ opinions on town meeting warrant articles that will not appear on a subsequent ballot election.
To remedy that, Cyr and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth last month introduced “An Act relative to dark money in local government,” currently numbered SD.2804. The bill would include town meeting warrant articles under state laws that require candidates and outside groups to disclose their spending and their funding sources.
The bill revises the language in Chapter 55 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which imposes restrictions on electoral finance, from groups lobbying for certain elections to spending on different candidates. The law includes state and town elections but omits town meeting warrant articles.
The absence of town meeting warrants from the existing law is an “oversight” and a “profoundly undemocratic loophole,” said Fernandes, who introduced a parallel bill in the House of Representatives, HD.4628.
The legislation, Cyr said, is not an effort to end such spending but rather subjects it to the same disclosure rules that apply to other campaigns in the state.
“Dark money” spent by anonymous organizers and donors is a growing problem on Cape Cod, Cyr said. In the last few years, people and entities outside the Cape have begun to see real estate here as an “incredibly valuable investment asset,” he said. With this increased investment, however, more external actors want to influence town meeting votes in their favor, Cyr said.
Fernandes said that “the Cape and Islands are a place with probably more outside money than any other communities in the country.” His legislative district includes both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket as well as three precincts in Falmouth.
“There’s no reason why outside groups should be able to spend millions of dollars on local issues that maybe a few hundred people are voting on,” Fernandes said.
In 2020, Nantucket was among the first towns on the Cape and Islands to encounter “dark money,” in the form of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket’s Economy, which spent thousands of dollars in a campaign against regulations and restrictions on short-term rentals. At Nantucket’s 2023 annual town meeting, an article on short-term rental regulation was defeated.
The alliance was entirely anonymous and was not registered as a corporation or nonprofit organization; it was later discovered that it was formed by the Copley Group, a real estate firm that operates a dozen short-term vacation rentals on Nantucket.
This incident was one among many that Cyr and Fernandes cited as motivation in a press release about their bill.
Cyr pointed to the “Take Back Truro” campaign that sent mailers to residents ahead of a scheduled Oct. 21 special town meeting, encouraging voters to oppose several articles, including a plan for developing affordable housing at the Walsh property and a new local comprehensive plan. The mailers described the group as a “citizen’s movement” but did not name any of the organizers and included only a general email address and a post office box as a return address.
“It’s distressing that people with deep pockets and financial interests think that they can buy their way in our local governance,” Cyr said. “If there are off-Cape and off-Island interests who want to influence our perspectives and our vote, then at least there should be some transparency here.”
Provincetown’s April town meeting spurred Cyr to introduce the bill, he said. Before that meeting, an anonymous group called Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions set up a website and sent out text messages and flyers urging voters to oppose several articles on restricting short-term rentals.
Provincetown select board member Austin Miller told the Independent that, regardless of his opinion of those articles, he found it “disturbing” that Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions “can operate in complete darkness without accountability.”
Cyr said the state’s disclosure process is “quite easy.”
“You’ve got to disclose who your donors are, and you have to report on a monthly basis what your spending is,” he said. Transparency is a necessary part of the democratic process, Cyr said, and helps to “serve everyone better.”
Cyr and Fernandes unveiled their bill on Oct. 17; it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.