UMass students OK with election schedule as it stands

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

AMHERST — Despite legal arguments that establishing an election calendar for the new Town Council that coincides with the state’s schedule may infringe on the ability of college students to participate, three University of Massachusetts students say they are comfortable with the November vote.

Speaking to the Select Board Monday, John Page, a junior who lives and votes in Amherst, said it is important to let Town Meeting know that many students would not feel disenfranchised by the election calendar contained in the town charter adopted by voters March 27. That calendar sets a primary election for Sept. 4 and a general election for Nov. 6. That schedule depends on an appeal to the state Legislature from a special Town Meeting session set for April 30.

“We see no reason to delay,” said Page, a member of the UMass Democrats, an organization that endorsed the charter.

His comments came just days after John Bonifaz, a constitutional voting rights attorney who founded the National Voting Rights Institute and is co-founder of Free Speech for People, told the Select Board that such a schedule violates students’ federal constitutional rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and under the 26th Amendment.

Page told the Select Board that while getting nomination papers June 1 and returning them on Aug. 1 are inconvenient dates for student candidates, having the election coincide with the November state election will bolster student engagement.

Less student participation would happen if the election were delayed to the alternate date of Jan. 24, 2019, Page said.

Jack Eccels of Melrose, who doesn’t vote in Amherst elections, said collecting 25 signatures in two months is not too challenging, even though the summer may not be an ideal time for campaigning.

“The whole idea (of the charter change) is to be year-round government,” Eccels said. “There are some obstacles, but they are not insurmountable.”

Lucas Harrington, a lifelong Amherst resident, said he is confident that a student interested in having one of 13 voices on the Town Council would be able to get signatures even if most of the summer were spent in another state.

“If you’re committed enough to do it, it’s attainable,” Harrington said.

Precinct 7 Town Meeting member Carol Gray said the schedule in the charter is risking voter suppression and Town Meeting should heed the advice of Bonifaz.

“We definitely don’t want to run afoul of voters’ rights and candidate participation,” Gray said.

Annual TM action?

In addition to the election calendar, it’s unclear whether annual Town Meeting, which begins after the special Town Meeting concludes, will get to act on several zoning amendments.

Charter Commission Vice Chairwoman Mandi Jo Hanneke said several zoning articles should be dismissed, including ones that would change rules on supplementary dwelling units, also called in-law apartments, and an inclusionary zoning bylaw that mandates developers add affordable housing to their projects.

Chairman Andy Churchill said Town Meeting should only act on zoning that has time constraints, such as clarifying marijuana regulations before state law changes.

“To put matters of great import in terms of zoning in the hands of this outgoing body seems like it is frustrating the purpose of the charter,” Churchill said.

Charter Commission member Gerry Weiss, though, said Town Meeting should take up business of the town until a council is in place. Weiss is bringing forward a petition to promote a change to the inclusionary bylaw.

Maurianne Adams of Precinct 10 said the mantra should be “transition, not a stop and wait” and that long-running efforts of both the Planning Board and residents to promote affordable housing shouldn’t be curtailed until a Town Council is elected.

Town attorneys KP Law has given guidance that many of the zoning changes are appropriate for consideration.

“Saying no to everything might be the simplest, but it may not be the wisest,” said Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter.

The Select Board Monday also formed a mandated transition committee that will examine existing bylaws and make recommendations to the Town Council to ensure these are in compliance with the charter.

The three members are Robert Ritchie, former town attorney, Finance Committee member Bernie Kubiak and former Finance Committee Chairwoman Kay Moran.

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