Editor's note: In this editorial on political donations and spending in Keene’s mayoral races, we used the term “dark money” in reference to the 2007 mayoral race between Dale Pregent and Bill Beauregard. In this case, the term was used to mean money of unknown origin; thus, voters were in the dark regarding where it came from.

We also said, of ads and fliers backing Beauregard at the time: “The candidate said he hadn’t paid for them, and didn’t know who had.” At least part of that statement is wrong. We can find no evidence that Beauregard denied paying for the ads, although we also can’t find any indication he cleared up at the time who did. He now says he did pay and that he had made that clear at the time.

Our intent was not to imply any wrongdoing on Beauregard’s part — or that of any other local candidates mentioned in the editorial. It was to point out that such confusion over campaign support is not a new experience in Keene this year and the need, therefore, for transparency in even local elections.

The first thing to say about the proposal to enact campaign-finance regulations in Keene’s citywide elections is that it’s a shame it’s come to this. Yes, we’ve seen the effects of partisan money creep from national to statewide races, and even down to local elections for the state Senate and House.

It’s no secret the major parties — which now seem to have an almost unending stream of cash with which to strategically influence races at all levels — have taken an increasing interest in state and local government, including sending money and resources to candidates for even nonpartisan positions.

There have been past attempts to influence Keene voters, and they’ve largely fallen flat on their faces. The state Democratic Party funded and put together slick, sometimes-negative mailers to benefit Bill Lynch’s state Senate campaign against Republican Tom Eaton in 2000. Lynch himself disavowed the move, yet in heavily Democratic District 10, he lost solidly.

In 2007, the mayoral race pitted Bill Beauregard against Dale Pregent. Though the office of mayor, like that of city councilor, is nonpartisan, the campaign was marred by political “dark money” nonetheless. It was no secret Beauregard was a Republican and Pregent a Democrat, though neither ran as such. But at one point, Beauregard was listed on a state GOP candidate list; and volunteers for Democrat Barack Obama carried Pregent signs at a candidate debate. As voting neared, Elm City voters were presented with colorful fliers backing Beauregard, carrying a notation that they were paid for by “Beauregard for Mayor.” The candidate said he hadn’t paid for them, and didn’t know who had. Whoever it was, they remained anonymous.

After the 2007 election, which Pregent won, two city councilors vowed to seek an ordinance to bring transparency to the money being spent to benefit mayoral candidates in the future. Somehow, that never happened.

Fast-forward to 2019, and we once again have a “nonpartisan” race for mayor between two candidates whose party affiliation is well-known in the city. George Hansel and Mitch Greenwald, councilors both, have announced their candidacies for mayor, although the actual filing period has yet to occur. Both candidates are well-qualified and the race is expected to be close. And part of the dynamic is the resurrection of the idea of campaign finance reporting for local candidates.

Proposed by Councilor Terry Clark, who supports Greenwald, the idea came before the council’s finance, organization and personnel committee last week. The proposal Clark put forth would follow that used in Nashua, which requires political committees to register with the city and candidates to report all expenditures and contributions to the city clerk. Contributions over $10 must have the name and address of the campaign contributor.

Clark has been stumping to put the ordinance in place for the coming city election, but Keene City Clerk Patty Little explained to the committee last week it can’t be done that quickly.

For one thing, she noted, it would take time to draft a proper ordinance. At the committee meeting, there wasn’t even agreement on what the donation threshold ought to be to trigger the policy; Little noted the lower the threshold, the more work it would cause for her staff, and the harder it would be for candidates to comply. There’s also the question of whether it ought to include council candidates, who arguably have as much or more influence over city governance as does the mayor, who rarely votes on issues before the council. And what counts as a contribution? Only money? How about having signs printed, or taking the candidate to lunch, or providing advertising or another service free or at a discount?

Then there’s this: If someone violates the ordinance, what’s the punishment? City Attorney Thomas Mullins said he couldn’t find any law giving the city the right to keep a violator out of office. Would it involve a fine? Clark seemed to think just the shame of being outed would be punishment enough.

In the end, he proposed a policy, applying only to mayoral candidates, that would call for reporting donations of $50 or more, once the candidate has $1,000 in funds. That suggestion went before the full council after a 3-2 committee vote — and got sent right back to the finance panel.

The idea of more transparency in city elections is a good one. We’d extend any policy to include council races. But as Little noted, there are many aspects to consider, not the least of which is how to hold candidates to the ordinance, and to protect against it being so burdensome that it deters potential candidates from running. It needs to be well-researched and carefully considered, not hurried into place to shine a spotlight on whoever is supporting Greenwald or Hansel; the partisan aspects of their race have already been made clear.

The trick will once again be to maintain a focus on the issue once this November’s election day has passed.