Ahead of a crucial vote on the largest mixed-use development in Newton’s history, a local group of opponents is alleging that the city’s mayor violated campaign finance law by seeking the state’s help in trying to influence voters to support the project.
The complaint, filed Tuesday with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said that Mayor Ruthanne Fuller asked the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to announce action on infrastructure projects near the site of Northland Investment Corp.’s planned mixed-use development in Newton Upper Falls.
The complaint was filed by the Committee for Responsible Development, a local ballot question group opposed to the project.
“Mayor Fuller’s inappropriate use of city and state resources undermines the democratic election process and sets a dangerous precedent,” said Martina Jackson, co-chairwoman of the committee, in a statement. “Both Mike Kennealy, Secretary of EOHED, and the Mayor must adhere to political finance regulations in exerting unlawful pressure on the March 3rd referendum.”
The complaint comes during an increasingly acrimonious debate over Northland’s plan to build apartments and commercial space on about 22 acres at the intersection of Needham and Oak streets.
Supporters, including Fuller, back the project for its inclusion of affordable housing and economic benefits; opponents say it is too big and will increase traffic.
The development was approved by the City Council in December, and opponents successfully organized an effort to bring the project to a referendum vote timed with the upcoming presidential primary.
According to the complaint, Fuller and Peter Standish, Northland’s senior vice president, met with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development “to seek assistance in opposing the Referendum” following the council’s December vote.
In a follow-up e-mail, Fuller told state officials that “a signal from the Commonwealth that they also see the tremendous value in this project could be extremely helpful,” according to the complaint.
The complaint said Fuller wrote that the prospect of securing early action on two adjacent infrastructure projects — improvements for Pettee Square and the Upper Falls Greenway Extension — “would be a powerful message that projects like this can improve the quality of life for neighbors.”
A few hours after the ballot committee announced it had made the complaint Tuesday, Fuller announced in a city e-mail newsletter that Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and Kennealy would join her on Thursday in Newton to announce a MassWorks infrastructure grant for transportation and neighborhood improvement projects for the Upper Falls Greenway and for Pettee Square.
In a statement Wednesday, Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman, said Fuller will cooperate fully with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Fuller is “doing her job looking out for this city,” Ishkanian said, and has put Newton in a position to benefit from state funding for improvements to the Upper Falls neighborhood.
“Mayor Fuller is being proactive. She is putting Newton in an excellent position if the project moves forward,” Ishkanian said. “She would be remiss if she sat still and didn’t do her job to take advantage of state funds to address issues the residents of Upper Falls have raised.”
In a statement Wednesday night, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development said: "The City of Newton submitted a MassWorks application, and after completing the grant program’s application process was awarded a grant for the design of intersection upgrades and public improvements.”
Jason Tait, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said in an e-mail he could not confirm or deny the existence of any complaints or cases.
Tuesday’s complaint is the latest in a series filed by the Committee for Responsible Development related to the Northland project.
In January, the group alleged that Fuller inappropriately used the city’s e-mail newsletter to publicize her support for the Northland development.
In another complaint, filed Feb. 13, the committee alleged that a city-prepared “Ballot Summary” for Newton voters regarding the referendum was not fair because of the way information critical of the project was displayed on the city website.
Last month, Alan Kovacs, an opponent of the project, filed a state Open Meeting Law complaint against Newton’s City Council, accusing it of not following the law when it posted a meeting that included discussion of the Northland referendum.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.