Judge poised to review Jones Library petition signatures

  • An artist’s conception shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2021 5:34:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton Superior Court judge is considering reviewing signatures rejected by the Amherst town clerk’s office in the failed petition to bring the project to expand and renovate the Jones Library to a townwide referendum vote.

At a teleconference hearing on the emergency motion filed by an attorney representing petitioners in their lawsuit against Amherst’s Board of Registrars, Judge Richard J. Carey said he would be willing to return for a hearing Aug. 14 at 10 a.m. to examine the 1,088 signatures filed and determine whether the town clerk’s office applied standards correctly in certifying those signatures.

The petition fell 22 signatures short of getting the necessary 5% of registered voters to force the reconsideration of the $36.3 million library project under the voter veto provisions in the town charter.  The Board of Registrars certified 842 signatures, but 864 signatures were needed.

As of late Friday afternoon, Carey had not issued an order related to the next steps in the case, but the plaintiff’s lawyer, Thomas Bean, an attorney with Verrill Law of Boston, said he anticipated that order would be received in the “near future.” 

Bean told Carey that the matter needs to be decided by the end of August so there will be time for the Town Council to put the question on the Nov. 2 election ballot.

“We’re asking the court to compel the board to conclude the requisite number of signatures has been obtained,” Bean said.

Bean said court actions he will file next week, including both a preliminary injunction and a summary judgment motion, are to stop irreparable injury to the 40 residents he represents in the lawsuit, many of whom had their signatures invalidated.

The town is already moving forward with the project following the 10-2 vote in favor by the Town Council, with Town Manager Paul Bockelman this week soliciting interest from the public in serving on the Jones Library Building Committee. That committee, to oversee the design and construction of the project, needs two members of the public, one with experience in energy-efficient public architecture, engineering or construction and the other with experience in effective community outreach.

Gregg Corbo, an attorney with KP Law who is defending the Board of Registrars, expressed frustration, saying he was being blindsided by Bean’s request for summary judgment and shortening the time in which to respond to the lawsuit.

“The ambush tactics being used here are outrageous and inappropriate,” Corbo said. 

Corbo said that no emergency exists in which Carey would have to act, observing that the plaintiffs knew as of May 3 that they wouldn’t be able to add certified signatures without a court order. That was when Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini rejected an appeal from petitioners to give them an additional week to collect signatures, the ability to use electronic signatures, and to cut in half the number of signatures by registered voters necessary to force a council revote and then a townwide referendum. 

Corbo also accused Bean of intentionally delaying legal proceedings so that opponents of the library project would find a more favorable time for the vote. A provision of a successful voter veto is to have 20% of registered voters participate, a more likely scenario in an annual election rather than a special election where turnout is usually less.

The petitioners previously went before the Supreme Judicial Court, which referred the matter back to Superior Court. The lawsuit argues that there are numerous examples of valid signatures not counted toward the petition, including people who did not sign a middle name or initial on the petition even though the middle name or initial was listed on the town’s voter rolls, or did sign a middle name or initial on the petition when the middle name or initial was not listed on the voter rolls.

Bean contended that similar petitions have not seen a rejection of 22% of signatures, but much less, though Carey said he didn’t see the relevance of the statistical analysis, and that the board either applied the law correctly or it did not in the certification process.

“Our argument is the board did not apply the law correctly,” Bean said.

Corbo, though, said everything was done right by the town clerk’s office, and that most of the names rejected were illegible or didn’t include a proper address.

“A person who lives in an apartment does not live in the whole building,” Corbo said.


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