By Mark E. Vogler
---- — BOSTON — Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua — who set a notorious example of poor campaign finance reporting in Massachusetts — may inadvertently help pave the way for a new law that forces municipal candidates to take their record keeping more seriously.
A call for such a law gained major momentum yesterday when the House unanimously passed a bill by state Rep. Diana DiZoglio that would keep local candidates off the ballot for preliminary and final elections if they fail to file timely reports with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
“Certainly, the mayor’s issues were what prompted this legislation,” DiZoglio (D-Methuen) said in an interview yesterday.
“But this was an issue statewide. This is something that will impact municipal elections across Massachusetts,” she said.
DiZoglio, whose 14th Essex District includes a large section of Lawrence, said it was the first legislation she filed as a first-term lawmaker.
“It was expressed to me during my first week in office that this was a big concern,” she said, referring to the controversy surrounding Lantigua’s campaign finance reporting violations in early January. State Attorney General Martha Coakley had just sued the mayor for failing to file a 2011 campaign finance report and for not paying outstanding fines totaling $5,000 for those violations.
Existing state law already bars candidates for state and county office from getting on the ballot if they have outstanding campaign reporting violations and fines. DiZoglio’s bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, will hold candidates for municipal office to the same standard.
“While the issue was initially brought up from a local situation, it needed to be addressed statewide to prevent similar issues from arising in other communities,” DiZoglio said.
“The bill gained 31 co-sponsors during the first week and it’s only gained more support and momentum since that time. Not just from the Merrimack Valley, but around the Commonwealth. I had several colleagues approach me during the past several months who were hugely supportive of bringing more transparency and accountability to government at the municipal level. And when you get all the Democrats and Republicans to agree on something, you’re in good shape,” she said.
State Rep. Marcos Devers, D-Lawrence and an unsuccessful mayoral candidate against Lantigua in the preliminary election, said he was “humbled and honored” to stand before colleagues in the House yesterday to support the bill.
“I commend Diana and I’m very proud to be a part of this,” Devers said.
“By passing a piece of legislation like this, it actually shows the commitment we have for ethics. We must be able to show our constituents and taxpayers of the Commonwealth that elected officials must be held accountable so we can earn the public’s trust. There have to be rules and guidelines that make us a civilized society,” he said.
State Sen. Barry Finegold, the Senate chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Election Laws, said he doesn’t expect any problems with the Senate passing DiZoglio’s bill.
“I think it’s common sense and something we should implement,” said Finegold, D-Andover.
“This is something that already applies to statewide elected officials. There’s definitely a need for consistency and I think there is strong likelihood in the Senate that this will pass. We reported this favorably out of committee (Joint Legislative Committee on Election Laws). I don’t think we had any dissension among the members,” he said.
State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, who is the House vice chair of the committee, called DiZoglio’s bill “an excellent piece of legislation that was long overdue.”
“Given the amount of money we spend now on municipal elections, I think it would be appropriate that they be held to the same standard as other candidates. That campaign finance report should be just as transparent as reports filed by candidates at the state and county level,” she said.
“The bill we passed is pretty straight forward. It’s going to go over to the Senate pretty clean and should go right through. I believe it’s going to move pretty quickly,” she said.
The bill passed yesterday is similar to one filed by state Rep. Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican who is House minority leader. Jones had previously said the intent of his bill was to close what he referred to as the “Lantigua Loophole.”
Lantigua lost in last week’s final election to Lawrence City Councilor Daniel Rivera by 60 votes. The lead has since been narrowed to 58 votes. Lantigua is collecting signatures to request a recount, which could begin as early as this weekend.