Jones Library voter veto petition reaches Amherst town clerk’s office

  • Jones Library in Amherst GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/21/2021 11:57:21 AM

AMHERST — Petitions with hundreds of signatures asking that the Amherst Town Council reconsider its vote in favor of the $36.3 million Jones Library renovation and expansion project are now at the town clerk’s office.

But whether proponents of using the veto provision of the town charter to call for a revote and possibly a townwide referendum on the spending have succeeded in collecting enough signatures isn’t yet known.

Outside Town Hall late Tuesday afternoon, petitioners gathered sheets circulating in town with hopes of collecting 864 wet signatures, or 5% of registered voters, while still awaiting a decision from a Hampshire Superior Court judge related to an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction.

“I think it was good civic engagement,” said Carol Gray, a former library trustee who approached several people for signatures leading up to the 5 p.m. filing deadline. “Many people were eager to sign.”

She was joined by Marla Jamate, who said there has been strong interest in the petition. Several others also pulled up their vehicles, or walked to the front of Town Hall, to hand them signed forms.

“We had dedicated canvassers despite obstacles imposed by COVID,” Jamate said.

Even if the petitioners have succeeded in getting enough voters to consider the veto, which won’t be known until a certification process takes place, they are hoping a court injunction would give them another week to collect signatures electronically as well as in person, and to reduce by 50% the number of signatures needed.

“We feel strongly that citizens should still be able to petition the council during COVID,” Jamate said, adding that as the council creates rules it should aim to make electronic signatures equal to so-called wet ones, when a person physically signs a document.

While the petitioners understand the two weeks to get the petition in place is spelled out in the charter, they argue the pandemic poses unique challenges, from closed buildings to fears of infection to campaigners recovering from vaccinations.

If the lawsuit, which names Town Clerk Susan Audette and is signed by 14 residents, including two former presidents of the library trustees, is successful, or if petitioners are already successful, it would suspend the council’s April 5 action and prompt a revote on borrowing $15.75 million to support the project. A townwide referendum also could be triggered by the voter veto if the council endorses its original vote.

Assistant Town Clerk Amber Martin said Wednesday that the Board of Registrars will ascertain the number of voters who signed the petition as required by the town charter,

Once that process is complete, a certificate showing the results of its examination will be attached to the petition and returned to the Town Council’s clerk, Athena O’Keeffe. A copy of this certificate will also be mailed to the first 10 voters who signed the petition.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is aware of the legal complaint and that it has been referred to town attorney KP Law for a response.

Before the legal filing, the petitioners made similar requests to council President Lynn Griesemer, but those were denied.

The deadline and number of signatures are spelled out in the town charter, and “the Town Council does not have the authority to circumvent this requirement,” Griesemer wrote in a letter Friday to the group. “The Town Charter requires the petition to be ‘physically signed by a minimum of 5% of the registered voters.’ While the COVID pandemic response has included several state actions relative to signatures for candidates, none remain in effect at this time and none modify or override the Amherst Home Rule Charter.”

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


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