Court ruling clears path for $36.3M Jones Library project in Amherst

  • Patrons enter the Jones Library in Amherst on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • An artist’s rendering shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2022 12:10:52 PM

AMHERST — Overwhelming support for the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library by Amherst voters at November’s town election means planning for the $36.3 million project should continue, according to a Hampshire Superior Court judge.

In a decision issued Wednesday in the case of Terry Y. Allen vs. the Amherst Board of Registrars, Judge Richard J. Carey rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Nov. 2 referendum needed a two-thirds majority, turned down a preliminary injunction aimed at halting the project and denied the ability for plaintiffs to add new claims.

Citing Massachusetts General Law chapter 44, section 7, Carey wrote that Amherst operates under a city form of government and the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in favor of the project, with one abstention, last spring sufficiently met the threshold for borrowing $15.75 million.

“The plaintiffs’ argument is without merit,” Carey wrote. “The vote of the Town Council on April 5, 2021 satisfied the two-thirds vote requirement.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Thursday that the decision means the votes of councilors and voters have been affirmed, the interpretation of the law by town attorney KP Law is confirmed and the work of the town clerk’s office is validated.

“We are gratified that the Superior Court ruled in favor of the town on the claims in this action and denied the plaintiffs’ request to amend the complaint to add new claims,” Bockelman said.

Those who supported the litigation observe that their efforts were not in vain.

“Our primary goal was to assure the public was given the opportunity to vote on this very expensive project, and that was achieved,” said Marla Jamate, one of the lead petitioners.

“We hope to see the town making decisions, as the building process gets underway, to keep costs under control and assure that all groups in our community can play a role in determining what the library will become,” said Peggy Matthews-Nilsen of Teaberry Lane:

The 3,231 voters who cast ballots in favor of the project represented just over 65% support for the project that will depend on a $13.87 million construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

Carey’s decision goes on to observe that the Town Council put the project to a referendum, even though it wasn’t required to when residents pursuing a voter veto petition through provisions of the town charter fell short of gathering the necessary 864 signatures to trigger that action.

He wrote that nothing in the law “requires a further approval by a city’s voters or specifies by what margin such an approval would need to be.”

Also included in the decision, Carey rejected a continued push by the plaintiffs to have the process of certifying signatures for the voter veto petition examined. They have contended that signatures were wrongfully rejected, and that voters had been deprived of their First Amendment rights. But Carey turned down a new claim asking him to examine the guidelines of how signatures are validated, and that it was “too speculative” about whether future efforts at collecting signatures might be compromised.

Carey also rejected a new claim for “equitable relief” by plaintiffs on the grounds that “they have failed plausibly to allege that passage of the referendum by less than two-thirds majority was inconsistent with state law, or that a different standard of approval would have applied to the voter veto ballot question had it been placed on the ballot.”

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

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