Voters likely to decide sign law after petition drive that raised questions
The City Council moved Monday toward calling a special election to decide changes to a law about what kind of signs companies can install on office buildings.
Advice from the city manager and attorney was requested, and the council has two meetings remaining to discuss the issue before a state-mandated deadline.
What brought councillors back to the issue, after voting 6-3 in favor of an amended law Sept. 27, was a petition drive organized by Boston publicist Karen Schwartzman and funded largely by Terry Ragon, head of health care software maker InterSystems and foe of Microsoft, which shares his company’s building at 1 Memorial Drive and may want to post a sign saying so.
The petition to rescind or rehear the vote had 11,461 valid signatures out of 15,581 that had been turned in, with the valid signatures totaling 18.2 percent of the city’s 62,957 voters, according to the Election Commission.
But councillors questioned how those signatures were gathered, with several recounting how they were approached to sign against their own votes by unknowing and aggressive professional signature gatherers from as far away as Kansas or Minnesota. A recurring theme was the signature gatherer’s claims of “neon billboards” that would pop up around the city, a trope councillors said then appeared with disturbing regularity in their constituents’ e-mails, phone calls and face-to-face conversations.
The problem: There are no neon signs allowed in the new law, and billboards aren’t part of it either.
“A lot of e-mails have come in, ‘Oh, I can’t believe there are going to be neon billboards,’ neon billboards, I keep hearing it over and over again,” councillor Leland Cheung said.
“I ran into a guy in Central Square from Mississippi who was collecting signatures. I had my pin on, but he didn’t know who I was. And he said, ‘You know, your city councillors sold you out.’ I asked him what was going on and got the same thing: neon billboards. And I asked, ‘Where are they going to put the neon billboards?’ ‘Right here.’ I said, ‘That building? That building?’ ‘Oh, absolutely, every building.’ And this is not just one guy. I ran into three of them and without my prompting they all said ‘neon billboards.’”
Councillor Marjorie Decker, like other councillors, had similar experiences with the professional signature gatherers and with residents who had the same fear neon billboards had been voted in during “secret meetings,” although the vote was taken at a public and televised council meeting after six public hearings between two city panels held over months.
“On Oktoberfest Day, we went from Porter Square to Harvard Square and nine people that I spoke with —and I did not identify myself — their story was the same. ‘There will be huge neon signs all over the city.’ That can’t be a coincidence,” Decker said. “The language that was being used had no reflection in the reality of the ordinance.”
Even councillor and vice mayor Henrietta Davis, who voted against the law last month, called the petition process “appalling” and filled with exaggerations and lies, while councillor Tim Toomey called it “certainly not ethical” and councillor Ken Reeves called it essentially “an attempt to overrun the government by somebody who’s got a lot of money to do that. So we’ll see if in the People’s Republic the people are for sale.”
Attorney James Rafferty, who has worked for Microsoft, said during public comment that he’d also been approached with warnings of “neon billboards.”
Schwartzman confirmed Monday that Ragon had paid SpoonWorks Inc., of Brookline, to bring in between 10 and 20 professional signature gatherers, although she said she couldn’t confirm conversations in which councillors were told the rate was $2 per signature. Such workers are usually paid less; Reeves passed out copies of an article from the Saturday edition of The New York Times saying the usual rate is 75 cents to $1.50 per name, “so we got the premium campaign.”
SpoonWorks founder Harold Hubschman, though, told the Sun Chronicle newspaper in June that he pays between $1 and $4 per signature.
“We have a 100% success record,” Hubschman says on his website. “We have never failed to qualify a candidate or initiative.”
Although Hubschman was at the council meeting, Schwartzman would not identify him or make him available for comment on his methods preparing the out-of-town workers for the Cambridge petition drive.
“They were trained about what this amendment says,” Schwartzman said, when asked if the signature gatherers had been working from a script. “They understood this allows for large signs on large buildings along the Charles River.”
“They were not trained to talk about neon signs, nor were they trained to talk about these as billboards,” she said. “They were specifically told that these are not neon signs and they are not billboards we are talking about.”
She did not clarify why the signature gatherers had to be told what the sign ordinance didn’t say, nor why a majority of the councillors said they’d encountered multiple professional signature gatherers using language they’d been specifically trained not to use.
Neon had been a part of the ordinance at one time, she said, although not at the time of the vote and therefore not when SpoonWorks imported and trained its workers for the petition effort.
There had also been many residents working to gather signatures. After Rafferty spoke during public comment, resident Carol O’Hare said she’d gathered 65 signatures in two and a half hours one Saturday at a farmers market and “I hardly had to say a word. That is not due to Terry Ragon, and it’s not due to strong arming.”
She also had her own accusation of corporate money at work in Cambridge, pointed the opposite direction:
“Before Mr. Rafferty appeared before you this evening and said he represents himself, before that he represented Microsoft. Microsoft spent a lot of money on this sign amendment. And it didn’t spend it to get a sign on its building. It spent it to have the entire city amended, the law amended so it applies to the entire city.”
Later, asked what spending by Microsoft she meant, she said, “I don’t know of any” aside from the company’s employment of Rafferty. Rafferty appeared at meetings to speak in favor of the sign law changes, but there has been no publicist, website, advertising or petition gathering indicating the company has spent anywhere near the thousands of dollars raised and spent by Ragon and Schwartzman.
Mayor David Maher called it “a deliberate campaign to mislead the public, and I think it was shameful,” like other councillors who said they worried about a local echo of the Supreme Court decision freeing corporate spending in politics.
Maher went on, reminding those listening:
“Prior to the signature gathering, there were printed materials with doctored photographs that went out. This was a deliberate campaign from day one to mislead and confuse the public, and it worked! Success to those who did it. All I can say is, you did it. And the rest of us probably wouldn’t have done it. But I think it was shameful and setting an extremely dangerous precedent.”