Jones Library project foes ask judge to require supermajority for approval

  • Jones Library in Amherst FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/28/2021 7:54:19 PM

AMHERST — Opponents of the $36.3 million Jones Library project are asking a Hampshire Superior Court judge to rule that the expansion and renovation can only proceed if a supermajority of voters at Tuesday’s election agrees with the Town Council’s April vote.

But town officials say that if a majority of residents casts ballots in favor of the council’s vote, that means the project, which depends on a $13.8 million Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners grant, is approved.

“It is a simple yes-or-no question with a simple majority required for passage,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote in an email Thursday.

An emergency motion for declaratory judgment, filed this week in Hampshire Superior Court by Amherst attorney and former library trustee Carol Gray on behalf of 40 residents, cites Chapter 44, Section 7 of state law as triggering the higher threshold of approval.

“The townwide vote regarding whether the town will borrow the $35+ million for the proposed library expansion project requires a two-thirds majority based on state law, the language in the referendum question itself which invokes that state law, and because if town charter provisions were to only require a majority for borrowing, such provisions would be in conflict with state law and therefore invalid,” the lawsuit contends.

Bockelman, though, wrote that the lawsuit shows a clear misunderstanding of municipal law and that the state law referenced only required the Town Council, as the town’s legislative body, to meet the two-thirds majority, which it did in its 10-2 vote.

“Subsequently, the Town Council chose to place the question on the ballot under the terms allowed by the town charter to ask the voters at large to accept or reject its decision,” Bockelman wrote.

Section 8.6 of the town charter states that “the Town Council may of its own motion… submit to the voters for adoption or rejection at any regular town election any measure with the same force and effect as is hereby provided for submission by petitions of voters.”

Still, those supporting the lawsuit, and requesting that a judge make a decision prior to Tuesday, say the merits of the case are on their side because state law requires that voters stand in place of the Town Council during a referendum.

“The two-thirds supermajority is basic state law,” said Sarah McKee, a former president of the trustees and a former federal prosecutor. “It applies to all borrowing by every single city and town. This includes Amherst.”

Rita Burke, whose signature was invalidated in the spring when petitioners attempted to get a referendum on the library project through the voter veto provisions of the town charter, similarly wants the court to rule that a simple majority is insufficient for the project to be approved.

“The town also has an obligation to taxpayers like us to follow state law, which requires a two-thirds supermajority on borrowing for capital projects,” Burke said.

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

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