NEWBURYPORT — City records show that seven of the 11 City Council candidates were late filing their campaign finance reports for the election Nov. 5, a statistic that some officials say is a concern.

The question about the councilors’ campaign finance reports arose recently in the wake of a controversy about reports filed late by the Opt Out Newburyport and Newburyport Cannabis Action Network groups, both of which formed in response to the city’s marijuana retail ballot referendum. Campaign finance reports were due in the city clerk’s office Oct. 28.

The ballot question asked voters if marijuana retail establishments should be banned in Newburyport. The question was approved 52% to 48%.

Opt Out Newburyport, which encouraged a “yes” vote on the question, filed its campaign finance report Nov. 12. The group received $7,298 in in-kind contributions, according to the report, 

The Newburyport Cannabis Action Network, which encouraged a “no” vote on the question, filed its report Oct. 30 — two days late, according to city records. The report states that the committee raised and spent $319.22.

Council candidates Paul C. O’Brien, Afroz Khan, Robert Germinara, Bruce Vogel and Heather Shand filed their campaign finance reports Oct. 31, according to the city clerk’s office website. Byron Lane filed his report just a day late on Oct. 29, and Joseph Devlin didn’t file his report until Nov. 20.

The candidates who filed on time were Barry Connell, Charles Tontar, Christine Wallace, Jared Eigerman and Sharif Zeid, according to the clerk. 

City Clerk Richard Jones said it has always been common for Newburyport’s City Council candidates to file their campaign finance reports late, and that until recently, it was hardly ever noticed.

“For City Council races, many of the candidates don’t have committees and self-fund their campaigns, so there aren’t a lot of eyeballs on them because it’s a small amount of money, and it’s usually their own money,” Jones said. “Generally, if someone is late, it’s because they couldn’t get ahold of their treasurer in time, they weren’t really sure (about their campaign finance totals) or they forgot.”

Jones said residents usually reserve their concerns about campaign finance reports for mayoral races and that the recent focus on city councilors’ campaign finances came as a result of the marijuana ballot question.

“There has never been such a focus on campaign finance,” he said. “This year, we’ve probably had 500 percent more focus on it than we ever have.”

State campaign finance law says the state can impose a fine of $25 per day for late-filed campaign finance reports with a maximum of $5,000.

Jason Tait, spokesman for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said the state may impose fines for late-filed campaign finance reports, but only after a local election official makes a referral and sends a notice to the candidate giving him or her a 10-day warning to file.

Jones said that to his knowledge, Newburyport has not done this.

City records say Khan’s total expenditures reached $3,342.54 and her campaign’s ending balance was $4,174. Devlin’s report states that he spent $165.20 of his own money during his campaign. Incoming Ward 5 Councilor James McCauley reported spending $1,009.82 during his campaign.

 Sarah Hall, who ran for Ward 6 councilor, reported $873 in total expenditures and an ending balance of $928.58. In an additional post-election report filed Nov. 21, Hall reported spending $2,628.91 and receiving $1,000 in in-kind donations.

Connell’s report shows $1,323.57 in expenditures and no ending balance. Lane’s expenditures were $820.62 and his ending balance was a negative $24.64. O’Brien, who ran for councilor at large, reported spending $1,139.34 and had an ending balance of $345.66. Shand’s report states that she received $100, spent nothing, and had an ending balance of $936.42. Germinara, who ran for councilor at large, reported $140 in total expenditures.

Tontar reported his expenditures reached $2,144.57 and that his campaign’s ending balance was $5,259.38. Wallace reported spending $758.20 and had no ending balance.

Zeid and Eigerman both filed on-time reports stating they did not receive any contributions or have any expenditures.

Devlin said on Wednesday he was previously under the impression that because he had self-funded his campaign and did not accept any donations, he did not need to file a campaign finance report. As a result, he filed late.

Khan, who said she filed her report late due to a miscommunication with her treasurer, said she believes that in the future, the city could spend more time encouraging candidates to turn in their reports on time.

“Maybe we need to be stronger on that enforcement,” Khan said, also suggesting that reminders could be sent out to candidates from City Hall. 

“Maybe there could be something printed in the paper,” Khan said. “Why not do as much as we can to use the communication channels we have to notify the public? I think we could do a lot more to educate the public and I don’t think we’re doing it now.”

Tontar stressed the importance of campaign finance reports as a means of keeping voters informed about who is paying for campaigns ahead of elections. In some situations, he said, the reports could alter the results of an election.

“I feel like campaign finance disclosure is critical in protecting democracy,” Tontar said. “It should be important for voters to know who is paying for these campaigns. I just hope this is an object lesson for everybody involved. Next time, follow the law.”

To see the campaign finance reports for elections over the last three years, or for more information about campaign finance reports, visit https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/city-clerk/pages/campaign-finance-reports

Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newbury­port City Hall. He can be reached via email at jshea@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.

REFER: Amesbury council candidate filings, Page 7.

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