Amherst petitioners seek SJC relief in Jones Library case

  • Jones Library STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEN HEIDEL

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2021 8:56:13 PM

AMHERST — Residents trying to force a referendum on the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, with borrowing for the project approved by the Town Council in April, are turning to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for relief.

The lawsuit was filed against the Board of Registrars on Thursday by 40 registered voters, most of whom didn’t have their signatures counted toward a voter-veto petition that needed to get 864 signatures, or 5% of registered voters. Only 842 signatures were certified by the town clerk’s office.

Filed by Thomas O. Bean of Verrill Law of Boston, the lawsuit states that the registrars, who give discretion to Town Clerk Susan Audette and her staff, wrongfully failed to certify at least 76 signatures.

“In so doing, the board violated not only the statutory and regulatory requirements for certification of petition signatures, but plaintiffs’ right to petition the government for redress of grievances and fundamental right to vote under both the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”

Previously, the petitioners have also asked the Board of Registrars to review more than 50 rejected signatures of voters who have signed affidavits attesting that the signatures are theirs. That appeal has not been acted on.

The $36.3 million Jones Library expansion and renovation project is moving forward following a 10-2 vote by the Town Council in support of borrowing $13.87 million.

A Hampshire Superior Court judge in late April denied a preliminary injunction over the failure to certify 246 of the 1,088 signatures submitted.

Judge John A. Agostini determined that he wouldn’t give petitioners an extra week to collect signatures, use electronic signatures or reduce the number of signatures they needed by half. But Agostini held out the possibility of a successful appeal of his decision. “Given the nature of the issues presented… immediate review by the Appellate Court, particularly the SJC, would be warranted,” he wrote in his decision.

The SJC filing comes as Carol Gray, a lead petitioner who represented the petitioners in court, said she voluntarily requested dismissal without prejudice of the Hampshire County Superior Court case.

The new lawsuit cites 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.

It also provides details about other voters who abbreviated their address on the petition, replacing “lane” or “street” with “lne” or “st.” Also rejected were signatures by some voters who put the town, state or ZIP code next to their signatures when those were not listed on the residential address section of the voter rolls, but only included in the mailing address section of the voter rolls.

Supporters of the library project and members of Amherst Forward, a group of residents that supported the new town charter in 2018, note that when they collected signatures to launch that town government change, the rejection rate for signatures was a similar 22%.

Jerry Guidera, who helped lead that collection, said the group knew to get a significant buffer because signatures are often not counted toward a petition when they are examined at the clerk’s office.

“From our perspective, we knew to anticipate about a quarter of them would be rejected,” Guidera said.

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

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