The Martha’s Vineyard Times and Vineyard Gazette won’t be paid for ads taken out for the successful 2021 vote to renovate and add onto the Tisbury School, based on an investigation done by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The investigation lets the town off the hook, saying it fully cooperated with the investigation. “Because you proactively contacted OCPF in an attempt to ensure compliance with the Massachusetts campaign finance law, and because we believe the guidance provided as the result of this review will ensure future compliance with campaign finance law, we have determined that further action by this office is not necessary,” the letter addressed to school board chair Amy Houghton states. “We also encourage you to contact this office and arrange for a seminar prior to any future townwide ballot questions to ensure that the campaign finance law is fully understood by all involved.”
Town leaders should have known they couldn’t take out ads for the $55 million Proposition 2½ debt exclusion. In January 2021, when the school building committee first discussed using $25,000 in taxpayer funds, The Times raised the issue that using that money would violate campaign finance laws.
The town’s consultant went ahead anyway, booking advertisements and inserts, and promising taxpayer money to have postcards printed.
Houghton did not immediately return a call seeking comment, and neither did town administrator Jay Grande.
Jon Snyder, the town’s finance director, told The Times the group working on the media campaign was a subcommittee of the school building committee. “They were operating on their own. They were not authorized by the town. What they drafted as ads were considered by OCPF to be political. The town cannot pay for those. Those were not authorized by the town,” he said. “We’ve found ourselves in the difficult position that unfortunately the town cannot be in a position to pay for those ads.”
Snyder said no one should have to write off money that was promised. “I feel terrible about it. It shouldn’t have played out that way. The law is clear,” he said. “It’s not the correct resolution.”
The Times is out $720 for advertising, as well as $1,778 for a newspaper insert. The Gazette won’t be paid for $1,250 in advertising, and Tisbury Printer is out $1,395 for printing costs. “These invoices, in the aggregate amount of $5,143, should not be paid using public resources, but rather should be paid using privately raised funds,” the decision states. In the same decision, OCPF director William C. Campbell authorized the town to pay several consultants on the project, including Nevette Previd, who is the person who scheduled the ads.
Previd, who took out the ads on behalf of Tisbury, said she was just doing her job as a consultant. It wasn’t her job to know what the campaign finance laws were. “I did a media plan, and everyone approved it,” she said, noting that her firm is also out about $500, and a graphic designer has also gone unpaid.
Tisbury Printer owner Chris Decker told The Times he was told by Snyder about the OCPF ruling when he attempted to collect on what his company was owed. “It’s upsetting,” Decker said. “Ninety-eight percent of the Vineyard is very good about paying their bills.”
Decker said he was told the bill would be made good at some point, but hasn’t been told by what organization. “It’s not a small amount of money for us,” he said.
It’s unclear who reported the improper spending of taxpayer funds to the state.
In the same decision, the OCPF said $975 spent on a postcard using public resources and later reimbursed by the Tisbury PTO was OK.