, Newburyport, MA

September 17, 2013

Controversy on eve of mayoral election


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Voters will go to the polls today in a preliminary election for mayor, but the final days of campaigning have been disrupted by an unidentified partisan distributing fliers and robocalls in opposition to Mayor Donna Holaday.

Polls in Newburyport are open until 8 p.m.; voters citywide will winnow the field of three mayoral candidates to two, and voters in wards 2 and 4 have a contested race for City Council.

Holaday said the city has contacted the state Office of Campaigns and Political Finance to investigate the fliers and robocalls, on grounds that they break state laws requiring disclosure of the parties paying for the distribution. She also made a statement from the front steps of City Hall yesterday afternoon condemning the anonymous attacks, joined by mayoral candidate Richard Sullivan Jr. and a dozen or so Holaday supporters.

The tactics used against Holaday in recent days have been unusual and far more sophisticated than those seen in past Newburyport elections. Fliers, using Newburyport school colors of maroon and gold, arrived in mailboxes all across the city on Saturday. Yesterday, robocalls were delivered to landlines and cellphones.

Both the flier and robocalls focus on a key issue in the race, the central waterfront. The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority owns 4.2 acres now used for parking lots, and its plan to encourage commercial development there has created controversy.

Earls and Sullivan are against development. Holaday has stated she is for a “limited” amount of commercial growth.

A key message on the flier was “Don’t let the mayor commercialize our waterfront.”

The robocall yesterday, received by some phones at 4:03 p.m., was as follows:

“Hello this is Michael your neighbor in Newburyprt. I’ve lived in this community for over 50 years. Newburyport is the best community in Massachusetts. And one of the best communities of America. So I wonder why it is the mayor wants to change the character of our community by commercial building on our waterfront. That’s exactly what will happen ... ”

The message added that “tomorrow is primary day” and “I’m taking a holiday from Mayor Holaday.”

The robocall came from a Newburyport-based landline, 255-9700. That number would not receive incoming calls, and a directory check revealed that neither the owner of the number nor the address is publicly available.

The flier received over the weekend contained similar language: “Why change the character of our community when we can change the mayor?”

The instigator did not sign the flier, nor did the robocaller identify himself other than “Michael.”

City officials, including Holaday, took offense at the election tactic. In addition, they alleged a violation of state law, which requires those who finance political initiatives of more than $100 to file a statement and identify themselves.

It’s not clear how much was spent on the robocall and the flier. Robocalls are fairly inexpensive — a city the size of Newburyport, with about 8,000 or so phones, can cost less than $200 to robocall.

The fliers would be far more expensive — each had a 46-cent stamp, a customized envelope and a color flier enclosed. Costs were estimated at $3,000 or more, assuming every home in the city was reached.

The state Office of Campaigns and Political Finance would not discuss the incidents per department policy, but did say it investigates all such requests. City officials, however, did not express confidence that a probe could produce results before the municipal election on Nov. 5.

Holaday yesterday afternoon called a press conference on the steps of City Hall to express her distaste for such tactics and concern about the illegality of using unsigned fliers and anonymous phone calls.

Holaday said she had reached out to her two competitors, City Councilors Greg Earls and Sullivan in an effort to show a united front against the tactic.

Earls called ahead to say he could not make the 4:45 p.m. event, because he was busy at work. Earls posted several times on Facebook that he objected to such tactics.

Sullivan did attend the session on the steps, and called the flier and phone calls a “distraction” at a time he wanted to be meeting with voters.

Sullivan said, “The Sullivan family does not practice campaigning by conducting mailings such as the one this past weekend. This issue has nothing to do with the Sullivan campaign.”

He added, “I do not believe this issue is worthy of a news conference. I want to get back to talking about what is really important, such as how did our school system fall in the state rankings from No. 16 to No. 67 in two years (according to Boston magazine) and how we are going to save taxpayers money and improve the public services they are paying for.”

Members of the Committee for an Open Waterfront, which has been a vocal critic of the NRA’s plans and the mayor’s position, denied any involvement in the calls and fliers.

Speculation has run high in the city over who sent the fliers and robocalls. Observers of City Hall did not publicly share insights on who could have mounted the anonymous campaign.

Though there are elections today in wards 2 and 4, the mayoral primary has received the significant amount of attention.

A forum last week, for instance, at the Firehouse Center for the Arts drew a throng that overflowed the 192-seat venue.

Recently filings show that Holday has raised about $22,800 for her campaign, while Sullivan has generated $5,520 and Earls $4,050.

The primary campaign has highlighted a period in this city that is characterized by significant involvement in local politics.

The community’s six wards are being contested this year — last year all ward councilors ran unopposed —and there are 10 candidates for five at-large councilor seats.

For the first time in city history, the mayor’s term will be for four years. It will pay $98,000 per year, with $3,000 in expense money.