Judge hears arguments in Jones Library case

  • Jones Library in Amherst GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2021 9:04:35 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A Hampshire Superior Court judge is promising to have a decision this week on whether Amherst residents who didn’t get enough voter signatures to bring the $36.3 million Jones Library project to a townwide referendum are entitled to some form of court-ordered relief.

During an hourlong hearing on a preliminary injunction Wednesday morning, Judge John A. Agostini made it clear he wasn’t sure what action he could take, as the petitioners aren’t contending that the town violated any laws, and in fact are complying with all conditions for a voter veto set forth in the town charter.

“I don’t think the court has jurisdiction to do anything with this,” Agostini said, adding that he would take the matter under advisement.

The petitioners are asking the court for an additional week to collect signatures beyond the 14 days allowed in the charter because of the pandemic, to have electronic signatures validated alongside in-person, or “wet” signatures, and to reduce by half the number of signatures needed.

“What you’re saying is you’re entitled to an accommodation,” Agostini said, speaking to Carol Gray, a lead petitioner and attorney who argues voters’ constitutional rights are being denied.

Agostini said that the matter might be better suited to the Legislature or governor, comparing it to a hypothetical case in which taxpayers file a lawsuit to prevent a town from collecting taxes during the pandemic. “We don’t do these things,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed after the town clerk’s office certified 842 signatures, 22 below the 5% threshold of 862 voters needed to launch a voter veto.

If the signatures threshold had been reached, it would require the Town Council, which on April 5 approved $15.75 million in town borrowing for the project by a 10-2 vote with one abstention, to take a revote. Petitioners submitted 1,088 signatures.

“Giving us another week is not only reasonable, I believe it’s constitutionally required,” Gray said.

Gray cited a 2020 court case known as Goldstein vs. Secretary of State, where the Supreme Judicial Court gave election candidates the right to collect signatures electronically and extended filing deadlines. The court’s order also reduced the number of petition signatures required by 50%.

“This is absolutely the jurisdiction of the court,” Gray said.

Lauren Goldberg of KP Law, representing the town, told Agostini that the lawsuit is moot, with no evidence of substantial interference by Amherst officials in preventing signatures from being collected. This was shown, she said, by the petitioners’ ability to collect well over 1,000 signatures.

“They proved they could collect signatures because they collected more than the minimum required by the charter,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg also said that the judge’s decision needs to be made promptly, as the town is anticipating signing a contract with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Friday to ensure the first loan payment related to the project is made in a timely manner.

The project depends on a $13.87 million state grant and $6.6 million being sought from private donors.

Agostini agreed that COVID-19 has altered the landscape for petitioners and any number of other activities.

“I certainly accept that it would be very difficult to do anything, including collecting signatures,” Agostini said.

Meantime, petitioners also have an appeal to the Board of Registrars, along with signed affidavits from 31 residents who argue that their signatures should have been counted toward the 842 certified. Agostini said the denial of signatures would be a review done by the town clerk’s office and is not under his purview.

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


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