Ballot question campaigns are always challenging and time-consuming - even ones that don’t actually get off the ground. Just ask John Belskis. The retired phone company manager led a charge to repeal key sections of the state’s housing law known as Chapter 40B.
Ballot question campaigns are always challenging and time-consuming - even ones that don’t actually get off the ground.
Just ask John Belskis. The retired phone company manager led a charge to repeal key sections of the state’s housing law known as Chapter 40B. The Arlington resident’s ballot question essentially would eliminate the controversial parts that allow developers to sidestep local zoning rules if they set aside an affordable portion in their housing projects.
But voters won’t see the repeal question on ballots in November alongside questions about decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot and banning greyhound racing. That’s because the Repeal 40B committee last month turned in only 33,849 signatures to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office - or roughly half of the signatures that were required to get the question on the ballot. Of those, about 2,500 were thrown out, largely due to extraneous markings on the petition sheets.
Belskis learned about the defeat about two weeks ago - and he’s already going over ways to improve the process for the next go-around, two years from now.
For one thing, the committee raised a paltry sum of money. Campaign finance records show only $12,500 in donations through Dec. 11, with $10,000 coming from one supporter. The committee spent virtually nothing to gather the signatures, with just $140 in expenses recorded for mileage reimbursements.
Ballot questions ideally should be grass-roots initiatives, and Repeal 40B’s shoestring budget certainly reflects that ideal. But it’s nearly impossible to run a successful ballot question campaign these days without raising adequate funds early in the process.
Belskis says his committee also made a few tactical errors. He says he didn’t originally account for the fact that the signatures had to be submitted to town clerks’ offices by the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so they could be certified locally in time to be submitted to Galvin’s office for a Dec. 5 deadline. He says his group had hoped to make an aggressive push for signatures at the malls during the busy shopping days after Thanksgiving.
He says volunteers gathered signatures in 280 cities and towns - an impressive showing, to be sure. But he didn’t realize at first that the volunteers who submitted the petitions locally would also have to be the same ones who picked them up. As chairman of the Repeal 40B committee, he says, he eventually provided an authorization letter that allowed other volunteers to collect the lists of names - and he drove to many town halls himself. But he fears some names might have been lost in the shuffle.
Like many opponents of 40B, Belskis is frustrated that the law gives developers significant leeway in overriding local control over land-use decisions. He argues that the law’s impact is weakened without a requirement that the affordable homes in 40B developments be permanently kept at affordable prices.
He had hoped, at the very least, that the Legislature would make changes to the law as a way to prevent the ballot question from moving forward. Belskis still remains hopeful - even though the threat of the ballot question is off the table for now.
But the track record on Beacon Hill doesn’t bode well for his wish. Major reforms to Chapter 40B haven’t made much headway in the Legislature in the past. That’s partly because many lawmakers view housing affordability as one of the major challenges facing the state - and they see Chapter 40B as a key tool to address that challenge.
Belskis also attributes his committee’s failure to a well-funded opposition. That said, the committee formed in November to raise money in support of 40B hadn’t even begun fundraising when the news broke that the question wouldn’t make the ballot.
It’s entirely likely that the Repeal 40B group would have been outgunned by the opponents of the ballot question. The anti-repeal committee includes a wide range of prominent leaders from business groups such as Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, as well as nonprofits and universities.
Tripp Jones, chairman of the anti-repeal committee, says he’s not surprised that so many diverse interests came together in a short time to protect the law. He admits there’s room for improvement, but he also views the law as critical to the future of the state’s economy.
The committee never had time to hold its first meeting - and Jones isn’t sure it will now that the ballot question is gone.
But Jones, who co-founded the MassINC think tank and is well connected in the Boston community, may want to hold on to the phone numbers of those committee members.
That’s because the two sides will likely face off again in legislative hearings and in another ballot question drive in 2009. Belskis has already got his eye on another campaign. And this time, he says, he’ll be ready.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.