There’s a cancer eating away at the integrity of our civic governance. And it begins, as it often does, with money. Money channeled from developers to our city councilors. And if the system isn’t rigged in favor of those donors, it certainly appears like it is to anyone who’s been watching the Normandy/Twining (N/T) assault on the city council.
City councilors accepting campaign contributions from developers whose projects come before the council is at best a bad idea; at worst a sure sign that influence on the city council is up for sale.
It is far from coincidence that last week’s “attack of the snarling wolves” featured council members who accept developer donations attacking the two members who don’t. Almost surreally, the merits of Councilors Carlone and Mazen’s proposal were never actually discussed. Once again, an angry council rejected an opportunity to create something they might have found helpful—a minor zoning change that could have negated N/T’s threats to build a lab if they didn’t get their 19-story luxury tower—assuming any of those self-righteous councilors cared a whit about having a stronger hand in negotiating with the developer.
I’m certain most of our councilors would express outrage at the implication that campaign donations could buy their influence or, worse still, their vote. Well, as a resident of Cambridge, I would like to express my own outrage that councilors whose most important function is to vote on zoning changes would take money from those who appear before them and not recuse themselves in situations involving their donors!
It is totally possible the $9,850* Normandy/Twining funneled to council members had little to do with the council’s unseemly rush to approve spot-zoning for the oversized tower and surrounding properties. Or that the project being put on a fast track had nothing to do with Mayor David Maher receiving a combined total of $1,950* from N/T interests.
Donations weren’t just handed out once, but fed to the councilors over a 3-year period starting 12/5/2012, the day before the council’s Ordinance Committee was scheduled to discuss zoning recommendations for Central Square. From all appearances, our councilors were played mightily by N/T, getting fed donations, like hits of an opiate, one after another as the project advanced, growing more and more comfortable with being in N/T’s debt, one would expect.
In all, N/T made 27 separate donations in the two years prior to submitting their zoning petition on November 19, 2014. Those donations, totaling $6400, were made to 6 different Councilors. Housing Committee chairperson Denise Simmons received 5 donations totaling $900 during the four months preceding the filing of the petition, and Mayor David Maher received 5 donations totaling $1750 during the one month prior to the petition’s filing.
Here, in descending order, are the amounts donated by Normandy/Twining interests to our city councilors, as reported by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance*: Leland Cheung, $2,550; David Maher, $1,950; Tim Toomey, $1,450; Denise Simmons, $1,400; Mark McGovern, $1,350; Dennis Benzan, $950; and Craig Kelley, a mere $200.
Am I being naïve when I propose that the City Council has an obligation to act in such a way as to appear fair-minded and honest? By accepting thousands from a developer with a lucrative project on the boards, accepting regular ongoing contributions as though being paid for their services, six of our councilors stepped far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior or the appearance of propriety. Nor did their behavior on April 13th, attacking their fellow councilors for not acting collegially, especially in light of their sub rosa financial relationship with N/T, prove not only unfair but almost comical in its self-righteous tone. By lashing out at the only council members honestly trying to solve planning issue problems they only highlighted how little they’ve actually been doing themselves.
I’m not accusing anyone of doing anything illegal in taking $9,850* from N/T, but I am stating it would be morally and ethically wrong for our city councilors to take the money then vote to approve the project.
And it definitely wouldn’t pass the smell test.
When you look at the wrongness of the proposal itself—the building’s precedent-setting height; its massive bulk; its total disregard for area zoning and architecture; its inevitable spiking of area rents; its negative impact on neighboring Jill Rhone Park; its strong neighborhood opposition—you might wonder why the project has any city council supporters at all.
I challenge all six city councilors who have taken substantial donations from Normandy/Twining to recuse yourselves from any further votes on the matter. This project cannot be debated honestly now; it has been debased by the cynicism that fueled N/T’s slow-drip, council-controlling donation strategy.
And further, I call on all city councilors to commit to higher ethical standards in your fundraising by either REFUSING Donations from Developers and associated business interests or by RECUSING yourselves from ever voting on matters relating to your donors’ business interests.
Like Caesar’s wife, city councilors must be above suspicion. Or the taint of influence peddling.
Right now, you’re anything but…!
- *Statistics from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance; see http://www.ocpf.us
- All statistics mentioned in the article were updated from a previous post, and accurate as of 4/20/2015. Also a remark from an earlier post pointing out Dennis Carlone’s single developer donation became moot, and thus removable, since Carlone quickly returned the donation when he learned of the oversight.
- In an interesting development since my first release of this essay, Denise Simmons received an additional $500 from N/T’s Attorney, Anthony Galluccio, 2/28/2015 around the time of the First Ordinance Committee hearing on Twining’s re-filed petition.