Amherst registrars won’t review signatures on library petition

  • Petitioners are trying to bring about a town referendum on the Jones Library renovation project. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2021 8:22:38 PM

AMHERST — An effort to declare null and void the recent certification of signatures on a voter veto effort to put the $36.3 million Jones Library project to a town referendum has been rejected by the Board of Registrars.

Board member Dee Shabazz asked that the board give itself the authority to evaluate the validity of signatures by using voter registration cards at a meeting Thursday. But the board deadlocked on the issue, with Shabazz joined by Jaime Wagner voting yes and colleagues Jacqueline Gardner and Town Clerk Susan Audette voting no.

A town attorney from KP Law warned that only a court can order such a review of signatures, and that such a review, had the registrars gone forward wih it, would be illegal since it would be happening beyond the 10-day deadline spelled out in the town charter.

The decision, as part of a three-hour meeting Monday afternoon, came in response to an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by Carol Gray, a lead petitioner, to have the signature verification negated. Of the 1,088 signatures submitted, 842 were certified, fewer than the 864 needed to call on the Town Council to overturn its affirmative for borrowing for the library renovation and expansion.

Gray’s complaint stems from a brief April 21 Board of Registrars meeting that petitioners say was inadequate to inform the public of the subject to be discussed. The petitioners also say there was “impermissible deliberation” before the meeting, and that the board failed to conduct deliberations in public about delegation of authority to the town clerk’s office.

‘Meeting redundant’

Audette said it is clear from state law that registrars have no role in checking signatures and that approving delegation is not necessary, and was merely an extra layer of transparency.

“Having this (April 21) meeting was redundant because we already had your permission to use your signature stamps,” Audette said.

Amherst’s town attorneys observe that state law doesn’t allow such a review process at the local level, or beyond the 10-day limit.

“There’s no review process for noncertified signatures on municipal nomination papers or ballot petition questions. It’s the law,” Audette said.

Attorney Lauren Goldberg said at a previous Board of Registrars meeting Friday that state law has no authorizations for permitting registrars to examine and review voter registration cards to determine if there were enough signatures to meet the 5% threshold.

“There is an avenue to challenge this. That is in the Superior Court,” Goldberg said, noting that if mistakes were made they can’t be addressed by the registrars. “The clerk and Board of Registrars have no jurisdiction.”

Goldberg said typically there are many signatures rejected on petition drives, and that happens not to disenfranchise the public, but rather to facilitate the process of verifying signatures.

Goldberg said these standards are set in state law code of Massachusetts regulations.

Amherst attorney John Bonifaz asked that Goldberg and other KP Law attorneys not represent the town clerk or the Board of Registrars due to a conflict of interest in which they are taking the side of the Town Council’s vote.

“I have no personal interest,” Goldberg said. “The outcome here, to me, is not the point of the discussion. The point of the discussion is what does the law allow you to do, and what is the next step for petitioners if the board has no jurisdiction.”

KP Law attorney Gregg Corbo told Bonifaz that he “takes umbrage” at the idea that town attorneys are obligated to give advice to the petitioners. Their role is to enforce the law and do so in an impartial way, he said.

Though petitioners have submitted 92 affidavits of people who claim their signatures were invalidated, the law doesn’t work through affidavits, only through the Superior Court, Goldberg said.

Corbo said the Legislature has not given the registrars the right to reopen a signature process and certify signatures not certified in the initial review.

At the same time, at least 25 residents notified the town clerk that they would like to remove their names from the petitions, though most were counted toward the petition campaign.

During the registrars’ meetings, several residents argued that what is being seen is voter suppression.

Nancy Sardeson of State Street said the process is an abuse of discretion that has led to disenfranchisement of voters, comparing what she is seeing to the Jim Crow South.

Registrars should intervene in examining signatures because so many were rejected in certification, said Jeff Lee of South East Street.

“Please review the rejected signatures, including the more than 85 for which signed affidavits have been submitted, and do what is best for Amherst,” Lee said.

Denise Barberet of North Whitney Street said her signature was not counted toward the petition and she signed an affidavit.

“Absent any other particular explanation, about all I can conclude at this point is my signature was rejected due to my activism, and I find that to be deeply disturbing,” Barberet said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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