Petitioners ask court to step in on push for Jones Library revote

Published: 4/18/2021 7:46:27 PM

AMHERST — Petitioners have until Tuesday afternoon to collect more than 800 signatures, under a voter veto provision, to force the Town Council to reconsider its affirmative vote on the Jones Library expansion and renovation project.

But, group members said, the pandemic has made it difficult to collect signatures and they have been denied the ability to collect them electronically. So they decided to take legal action and filed an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction in Hampshire Superior Court on Friday.

“The town offices are closed,” resident and petitioner Marla Jamate said. “The Town Council meetings are still virtual. There’s a number of COVID accommodations still in place.” She added, “No one can say the pandemic is over or business is being conducted as usual. We feel that petitioners should be able to seek redress from their government effectively even during COVID. That in this case will require use of electronic signatures.”

To have a voter veto brought to the Town Council, 5% of registered voters, or 863 individuals, have to sign the petition. That would suspend the council’s April 5 action and prompt a revote on borrowing $15.75 million to support the $36.3 million library project. A townwide referendum could also be triggered by the voter veto.

The motion, sent to the Gazette by Jamate, asks that the group get an additional week for signature collection, the ability to collect signatures electronically, and a 50% reduction in the total signatures required. Fourteen residents signed the complaint. The document names Town Clerk Susan Audette as the defendant and says she told a petitioner that electronic signatures would not be accepted.

Audette did not immediately return a request for comment on Sunday, and when emailed, she sent an auto-reply that said she was out of the office through Friday. Lynn Griesemer, Town Council president, declined to comment on Sunday.

Canvassing hurdles

Before the legal filing, the group made similar requests to Griesemer. The deadline and number of signatures is 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.”

Petitioner Carol Gray cited a Supreme Judicial Court hearing last spring that allowed candidates running for office in 2020 to collect 50% of the required signatures, use electronic signatures, and gave candidates seeking state and county office a week’s extension.

As of Saturday, the group had more than 400 signatures, it said in a statement.

“People have been canvassing but there are a lot of ways that COVID has hampered the effort,” Jamate said. Some who want to help canvass aren’t able to, she said. “They aren’t immunized. They have vulnerable family at home.”

Before the pandemic, canvassers would typically go to large events to collect signatures, Gray said.

“But they don’t exist now,” she said.

Others are nervous to sign in-person.

“I had a 93-year-old woman who’s all ready to sign and then she said, ‘I can’t touch the pen. I can’t touch the clipboard. I’m 93, I can’t touch anything,’” Gray recalled.

Others say they won’t do business at their door when canvassers knock, or don’t come to the door at all, Gray said.

“Residents are aware of the pandemic’s ongoing presence here and remain cautious and sometimes fearful about face-to-face interactions,” petitioner Sean Burke said in a statement.

Removing names

At the same time, five voters have removed their names from the “voter veto” effort.

With people getting in touch with the Town Council after signing the petition, and then changing their minds, the town clerk’s office has created a template form so people can withdraw their signatures and not have their names certified.

Griesemer said the form was developed on advice from town attorney KP Law and is also being provided to Jones Library trustees and Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry.

Assistant Town Clerk Amber Martin said Friday that a request for a name to be removed from the petition has to be submitted to the clerk’s office, with a wet signature, before the voter veto petition is filed. The deadline for the petition is Tuesday at 5 p.m.

The text of the withdrawal reads, “I hereby state under the pains and penalties of perjury that I would like to withdraw my signature from and hereby request that my name not be certified on the voter veto petition regarding the Town Council’s April 5, 2021 approved measure ‘Approving and Authorizing Borrowing of Funds for the Expansion and Renovation of the Jones Library.’”

This can be emailed, faxed or left in the drop box at Town Hall, but the original signed document has to be physically returned, Martin said. If a withdrawal is not received before the petition is filed, then a signature will count toward the necessary signatures.

Kent Faerber and Lee Edwards, who co-lead the Campaign for a 21st Century Jones Library, recently wrote a column for the Amherst Bulletin calling the petition, led by longtime resident Vincent O’Connor, “a foolish bet,” and not simply democracy, due to a potential increase in costs associated with the building project.

“Even if the voter’s veto fails and the council’s decision is not overturned, it could mean a year’s delay,” they wrote, increasing the project cost by $1.6 million and postponing receipt of the state’s first $2.7 million grant payment.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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