Board Of Registrars Takes No Action On Appeal Of Signature Disqualifications. Hearing Continued To Monday

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Amherst voters whose signatures were disqualified from petitions seeking a referendum on the Jones Library project gave public comment to the Board of Registrars on Friday (May 7),  and expressed surprise and dismay over finding that their signatures were not certified by the Town Clerk’s Office.

“I’m a little annoyed, I have lived in Amherst all my life. I have lived at this address almost 14 years,” said Daniel Denton-Thompson. 

Twenty-nine people attended the meeting, and twelve members of the public spoke, all raising concerns about the certification process and disqualification of signatures.

“To be candid, I was gob-smacked to learn that my signature on this petition had been disqualified,” said resident Rita Burke, a retired town employee who has lived at the same address for 37 years. “Regardless of one’s opinion about the Jones Library project … Everyone should be concerned about the flawed process that has occurred, and most importantly, that voter rights have been suppressed,” she said. 

According to the Town Clerk’s Office, the petitioners submitted 1,088 signatures on April 20. The petitions are seeking a town-wide referendum, on an April 5 Town Council vote to borrow over $35 million to reconstruct the Jones Library. A day after the signatures were submitted, the Town Clerk’s office announced that the petitioners were 22 certifiable signatures short of the 864 needed to trigger a referendum under the Amherst Home Rule Charter. 

The petition group, in analyzing the rejected signatures, identified many from currently registered voters, including several who have lived at their addresses for long periods or even decades. The group includes several whose names have appeared on town documents as employees and elected officials, and has filed 89 affidavits from residents, affirming their petition signatures and stating that they wish to be counted.

State law requires that signatures be “substantially as registered,”and permits several minor variations.  

At Friday’s meeting, Carol Gray, the lead petition organizer, thanked the Board of Registrars for hearing the petitioners’ concerns and allowing public comment. “You have a very important job,” she said, adding that it is critical that the certification process respect voters’ rights. Gray added that the Board could rehold the April 21 Board meeting because of the Open Meeting violation.

The  Town’s attorney, Lauren Goldberg of KP Law, and Town Clerk Susan Audette were in frequent conflict on Friday with Registrar Demetria Shabazz. 

Audette, who is an ex-officio member of the Board of Registrars, quickly nominated herself to chair the meeting, although the meeting topic was an appeal of the certification done by her office. Shabazz maintained that one of the three Registrars should take that role instead and then nominated herself as well. Audette’s motion to chair the meeting ultimately passed, with Audette and Registrars Jacquelin Gardner and Jaime Wagner voting for it, and Shabazz against it. Audette urged the board to pass a motion stating that it had no authority to act on the petitioners’ appeal or objections, although no action was taken on it.

Based on the Town website, it appears that no other town committees are chaired by ex-officio members. 

In her role as Chair, Audette repeatedly called on Goldberg and invited her to speak. Shabazz said it was a conflict of interest for Goldberg to be advising the Board of Registrars since she represents the interests of the Town Council, Town Manager, and Town Clerk, while the Board is an independent body.

Goldberg argued that it is appropriate for her to be the Board’s legal representative. “I work for the Town, and not any particular entity in the town,” she said, 

Boards of Registrars, according to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office, are responsible for certifying signatures on nomination papers and petitions, issuing party enrollment and voter registration certificates, and investigating objections and challenges to local nomination papers, among other duties.  Under the Massachusetts General Laws, registrars take an oath to faithfully perform their official duties, and can face harsh penalties for misconduct, such as prevention of registration, fraud, and refusing to perform their duties.

Amherst constitutional law Attorney John Bonifaz participated, to present a legal opinion he had offered to the Board in his May 5 letter. Bonifaz said he believes there is a “direct and serious conflict,” in having Goldberg represent the Board, which has a separate responsibility to the voters. 

“The Board of Registrars must act independently, and with basic adherence to due process,” he said. 

Bonifaz said it is critical that the Board determine whether violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law took place, and urged them to do so before having further discussion about the objection and appeal filed by the petitioners. 

Petitioner Carol Gray filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the Board of Registrars on Tuesday, maintaining that the Board violated the Open Meeting Law on April 21, when it held a meeting of under three minutes, in Shabazz’s absence, to delegate the Board’s authority to certify petition signatures to the Town Clerk’s Office.

The complaint states that a notice for the April 21 meeting was inadequate to inform the public of the subject to be discussed. It maintains that there was “impermissible communication” before the meeting, and a failure to conduct deliberations in public. 

According to the complaint, the Board should “re-hold” the April 21 meeting, and conduct a new meeting in full compliance with Open Meeting Law.

“I am disturbed that the petition drive conducted so painstakingly during COVID-19 was certified and turned down so quickly, and that so many valid signatures were rejected,” said resident Josna Rege.  Rege said she collected petitions in her area, where several resident signatures were rejected. 

Goldberg asserted repeatedly that the Board lacks authority to review signatures based on the petitioners’ claims, and that the petitioners’ only recourse is to pursue the matter in court. She claimed the Board had no right to re-hold a meeting, although according to the regulations governing the Open Meeting Law, “the Attorney General may resolve the investigation with a formal order,” which may require “nullification of any action taken at the relevant meeting.”

Amherst resident Maria Kopicki said, “Humans are fallible creatures and mistakes are inevitable … The law provides a full 10 days to accomplish the task of petition certification, and yet it appears that a single individual completed an enormous endeavor … in less than 24 hours.” 

Jeff Lee, also an Amherst resident, said he didn’t understand why the petitioners have been met with so many roadblocks. “This petition does not have the power to stop the Jones Library expansion. It simply asks that the appropriation be put to a town-wide vote,” he said. 

The Amherst Home Rule states in its section on Voter Veto petitions that the “Board of Registrars shall ascertain the number of voters that signed the petition.”

Resident Marla Jamate said she collected petition signatures, including from a senior citizen who approached her outside Town Hall and asked to sign. The man had a significant hand tremor. While canvassing, Jamate said she met an elderly couple who wanted to sign, but both spouses had faint handwriting. Jamate said all three individuals were disqualified, and urged the Board to assure that elderly voters in Amherst are not disenfranchised.

David Lithgow of Amherst told the Board that he is a supporter of the Jones Library project, and had intended to make a comment urging inaction, but decided not to after hearing the others who commented. “It changed my mind, and I urge you to revisit,” he said. 

Denton-Thompson raised questions about whether the Town Clerk’s office was short-staffed when signature certification took place. “If you have people who are overwhelmed, hire more people, or don’t take a vacation,” he said. 

 The next meeting of the Board of Registrars is set for Monday, May 10, at 2:30 pm and will address the Open Meeting Law complaint. The agenda is here.

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22 thoughts on “Board Of Registrars Takes No Action On Appeal Of Signature Disqualifications. Hearing Continued To Monday

  1. A friend of mine recorded some parts of the Amherst Boards of Registrars meeting in this article and made me watch it (uuugh).

    But, ok, ok. I do see some interesting points emerging from this public meeting:

    – The Amherst town council and town manager hired a fancy Boston law firm to defend themselves in this case (paid for by Amherst taxpayers, is this money well spent???). During the meeting this attorney stressed a many times that they’re from Boston and have successfully defended many, many city and town leaders in cases like these. The town clerk repeatedly ask attorney for advices during meeting.

    – Interestingly the regular town clerk decided to go vacation during this petition signature check (smart!). So certification of signatures fell to the newish assistant town clerk directly supervised by the town manager. They stressed that the assistant town clerk tried to do their bests when reviewing the signatures but they relatively new (Yes, we all new at some jobs, I understanding and am sympathetic up to point..).

    – The Boston attorney stressed REPEATEDLY that NOTHING can be done at this point with reviewing the rejected signatures. The petitioners are totally SOL on this, accept for an expensive legal appeal to the state supreme court (A good use of the Go-fund-me perhaps??).

    My worries are:

    The Boston attorney made clear that the Board of Registrars has (literally) signed over all powers to the town clerk previously. These Boards are suppose to ensure that town’ voting/petitions procedures are conducted legally and fairly, BUT given the above are now utterly powerless in this town to ensure that. The BoR’ appears to only exist for the APPEARANCES of paper-overed fairnesses.

    In my opinions the Amherst (unelected) town manager and town clerk have COMPLETE latitude in reviewing petition signatures. It APPEARS that for petitions they’re in FAVOR of, like the town charter referendum they go very lenient, for petitions they hate it goes other way. Given that, why bother having a citizens petition clause at all in the Charter at all? It’s functionally USELESS. They want all discussions and oppositions to just go away. Amherst, open government to the max????

    IMHO their thumbs weighs HEAVILY on scales of basic fairless and legality. We’ve fallen into some kind of the Trumpian hole and small town tinpot dictatorships. Pleeeeese take notes on how the Amherst town councilors handle this issue, if at alls. They are ALL are up for election this November! I think they maybe ‘win’ this one but lose the BIG one…

    YES, I hope for better! But NONE of this bodes well for fairness, inclusion or democratic norms in our little town.

    Robert M. Smith

  2. Lost amidst all this discussion on the Indy is the lack of any mention whatsoever of the fact that there are a fair number of petition signatories who have requested that their signatures be removed. Why is that?

    What does seem very suspicious and irregular in all this is that anyone would ask for their signature to be removed from a petition. That begs the question: How many other instances are there of people who would, if actually given a fair opportunity to examine the issue, want to rescind their signature?

  3. What seems suspicious is the concerted disinformation campaign conducted by members of Amherst Forward to subvert a legitimate effort by residents of Amherst to contest a decision made by Town Council (the only such means provided to voters in the Town Charter – see section 8.4). In this case, petitioners seek a referendum so that voters may have a say on the borrowing for the Jones library expansion. Katherine Appy, Co-chair of Amherst Forward sent an email to a list for former members of Town Meeting telling them that if the petition drive succeeds it will cost the town at least $1.6M and providing them with instructions and a form to use to remove their signatures from the petition. Those instructions were reproduced on the FB pages of some AF supporters as well as the FB page of District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber. And then, for all of that effort, only 12 people requested to have their signatures removed and only 2 succeeded. But all of this is a distraction from the central issue of the petition drive which is that one in five signers of the petition had their signatures rejected by the Assistant Town Clerk. 89 long-time Amherst voters have filed affidavits protesting their unjustified disqualification and have apparently been told by the Board of Registrars that they may not appeal the decision of the Assistant Town Clerk and that they have no recourse. This is no longer a question about the library. This is now a voting rights issue.

  4. Agreed, Art. This IS a voting rights issue, and in a proud New England college town, of all places.

    89 Amherst voters have reportedly filed affidavits swearing that they signed the Voter Veto Petition, but that the Assistant Town Clerk rejected their signatures. This is a pretty persuasive indication that the Assistant Town Clerk botched the job. Is voters’ only recourse here really to sue the Town? If so, all Amherst taxpayers would be stuck paying for the Town to defend this evidently botched job. Is that how we want our taxes used? Even if the Board of Registrars’ purported delegation of authority to the Town Clerk’s Office is valid — and I’ve seen nothing to establish that it is — how can the Registrars delegate a job for which they are responsible, then wash their hands of it when their delegee evidently botches it?

    Several years ago, I was one of several Amherst residents involved with an appeal to the Board of Registrars from a Town Clerk’s determination as to voters’ signatures on a certain candidate’s petition. A comparison of signatures on the petition, with the signatures of the supposed signatories on their mortgages as shown in the Hampshire Registry of Deeds, strongly indicated that some purported signatures on the petition had been forged. No one from the Town told us that our only recourse was to sue the Town. Town Counsel was not involved at all as far as I know. The Board of Registrars simply proceeded to do its job.

    The Board should similarly do its job here.

  5. “How many other instances are there of people who would, if actually given a fair opportunity to examine the issue, want to rescind their signature?”
    How bizarre. The intent of the petition, clearly stated on it and by each of us gathering signatures, was to have the TC revisit their vote and perhaps put the issue to all town voters. A signature on the petition did not commit anyone to a vote for or against the current library plan. Given that, what are you inferring about some petition signers? Those who signed had their signatures submitted BEFORE the “polls” closed. Those FEW (10) who then requested that their signatures be removed (and from what I’ve learned only after the initiative by /contact from Ms Apply/AF) and weren’t granted that right, made their requests AFTER the “polls” closed. The rules of Democracy. The petitioners followed them. We expect that the Town would as well.
    (As an aside, you do realize that anyone can contribute to the Indy, right? I’m always baffled when you complain about what does or doesn’t appear).

  6. Here’s a fact. There have been over thirty requests to the Town by individuals requesting that their signatures be removed from the petition…

    It would be terrific for the crack team of independent, critical and progressive citizen journalists affiliated with the Indy to investigate this – maybe interview some of the people who signed and then asked to be removed?

    And, typically, what it the percentage of signatures that get disqualified during a petition drive?

    How many times has anyone heard of petition signatories actually requesting their signatures be removed after a petition drive has concluded? The signature removal form is available from the Town Clerk directly.

  7. Discretion is the better part of valor. Of course, Art is saying that “this is no longer a question about the library.” He’s dying to change the subject and turn this into a more heroic fight, and not ultimately one against a lasting important resource for the Town, yes, one that would be useful for the disadvantaged and those who have difficulty getting into and around the building now. Is this really the hill that Art and his Amherst Indy compadres (I’ll resist using the word “monolith”) want to die on, given that it might result in the forfeiting of another multi-million dollar grant to the Town? I see one regular contributor already trying to sell all of us voters on how wonderful the newly planned elementary school is going to be. In any case, we’re not going to finance a $80 million building without a huge amount of state money. But what are the state agencies tasked with assigning big grants to schools going to think if Amherst can’t get its act together yet again on a proposed windfall this year? Is every fight one could have in town with some imagined “powers that be” worth jumping into? If there are regular contributors to the Indy who oppose this petition push (and I have reason to believe that there’s at least one), speak now or watch the Town’s reputation slip further into the muck. I know that, based on the content here month after month after month, that Art lives for the conflict. How about the rest of you? Again, discretion is the better part of valor.

  8. If you’re concerned about voting rights here, you should also spend your time and dollars fighting anti-democracy efforts happening throughout the U.S. Recently, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and other states have tightened restrictions on voting to a level we haven’t seen since Jim Crow, with the same goal – disenfranchising Black people and ensuring minority rule. There’s a whole lot more than a library at stake – American democracy itself is at risk. You are not safe from the consequences of four more years of racist, totalitarian misrule by virtue of living in our New England college town.

  9. Absolutely, Tony Garrison, spending time fighting anti-democratic efforts is a critical issue. I think that the vast majority of those who read the Indy would agree that we owe a huge debt to the incredible ground game in Georgia – and I would venture that most of us have supported these efforts in many ways, great and small.

    That said, I respectfully suggest that the issue of the library in Amherst is critical to our future as a community. Those against this project have not demonstrated a plan for a realistic alternate use for this funding that would positively impact the lives of thousands of children and families for decades to come the way the Jones Library renovation and expansion will.

    Those in favor have shown that the renovation and expansion will enable our community to better serve children, seniors, folks without computers or access to high speed internet, entrepreneurs who need free space and access to information to work on their ideas, students, scholars of history and literature, people seeking high-quality ESL services, etc. – some of the basic building blocks of a true democratic society.

  10. Ok, some good dialogues here.

    It’s GREAT that the town wants to do more ESL and social justices programs in an ADA compliant space. BUT why can that ONLY be done by building a new oversized mega library at tax payers expense?

    Why not put those programs in EXISTING unused ADA compliant classrooms at the Bangs center (which is closer to parkings) or in the many unused classroom spaces at the middle school? Why hold those programs HOSTAGE to an unrelated and unneeded big captial building project?

    Pls note: I love and support the Jones, we all should! Spent many hours reading magazines in the natural lights atrium, a great feature that would be destroyed by this project if I understand correctly. And yes, I understand we need to pay for regular building maintenances there.

    BUT this big building proposal has the appearance of a vanity project pushed hard by small group of town elites. Most likely not wanted by the town at large especially when they fully understand how much it will cost all tax payers. This is most likely why they don’t want the town to vote on it, and why they ‘fixed’ petition results, no? Maybe that’s not really the case? I’m open to discussions and hearing more, but this sadly seems to be the truth of what they’re doing.

    I say again: lets do better.

    Roberto M. Smith

  11. I appreciate Mr. Smith’s desire for the town to do better but would challenge the notion that this is a project of elites imposing their will on the community. I think that is not correct, since this project was initiated by Library staff and Trustees, has involved literally dozens of public sessions, more than fifty volunteers, thousands of hours of volunteer and staff time, all open to further public feedback. See

    Furthermore, the planning began with Town Meeting approval of funds to match an MBLC planning grant some five years ago.

    The fact of the matter is that the Jones building is our community’s main library. And because it has such a great collection of books and other materials, and because it has such extensive Special Collections, and because the building is shaped the way it is, there is difficulty serving children and teens well, there is a strong need to renovate and expand to meet the community’s needs.

    The many volunteers and staff who have devoted countless hours to this project have worked diligently to enable the Jones to become a much better, much more energy efficient, much more patron friendly, and much more economically efficient facility.

    Please go to the Jones website for further information.

  12. Well, once again, the discussion about the flawed process regarding the verification of petition signatures is turned over to one about the current library plan. So, as long as you might consider the information regarding the library plan, I invite you to also take a look at the information found here: https://www.savejoneslibrary.org/

  13. In any petition drive, there are 3 basic options: the #1. right to sign, #2. the right to not sign, and the #3. right to withdraw after signing. None of these options are suspicious or subversive–they are all rights. I/we got (and are still getting) the most questions about #3. I posted the instructions and form from the Town Clerk, not from any non-Town individual or group. Thank you

  14. Matt, your characterization of the Town Meeting vote in April 2017 is not quite accurate. Article 23 was to see if the Town would authorize the Jones Library Trustees to “apply for, accept, and expend funds from a Massachusetts Public Library Construction Grant…”. It further specified that “Passage of this motion does not commit the Town to appropriate funding as may be necessary to implement the grant.”

    The measure passed by 11 votes, 105-94, a relatively narrow margin that signaled that support for the project was not universal. The vote came when the full cost and scope of the expansion were not known. Furthermore, the understanding at the time was that the library project would be financed by a debt exclusion override (see https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38800/FY18-JCPC-Full-Report-Final-?bidId=), providing voters with the opportunity to veto the appropriation if they didn’t feel that it justified a tax increase. As it stands now, the library expansion’s cost will accrue to the debt exclusion override that must be borne by the Elementary School replacement project alone.

    Clearly a lot of work has gone into planning, securing a grant, fundraising and marketing the Jones Library plan. But it is equally clear that many people, for a variety of reasons, still don’t like it. The best solution for both library expansion supporters and opponents, I believe, is to put the question to all Amherst voters. Then, whatever the outcome, we can get on with the healing.

  15. In addition, Jeff, as you may recall, the Yes votes on the library article in May 2017 included 11 ex-officio members of Town Meeting, including the Town Manager Paul Bockelman, the 5 Select Board members, 3 School Committee members (the other two were not present the night of the vote), Library Trustee Chair Austin Sarat, and FinCom Chair Marylou Theilman. Regular Town Meeting members’ votes were 94-94.

    Also among the Yes votes were now-Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke, Pat De Angelis, and Steve Schreiber (and of course Alisa Brewer and Andy Steinberg, who were on the Select Board at the time), and Library Trustees.

    The votes can be seen here: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/40807

  16. It’s not over, Matt – 1/6 happened after the election was won. There are midterm elections coming next year and new voting restrictions in place throughout the country. Build the project or don’t – I truly don’t care – but I beg all of you, please dispense with this lofty talk about the future and/or democracy if you only care about both when they affect you personally.

  17. Jeff –

    I believe that the vote by Town Meeting approved funds for planning as I stated above…I think it was $25,000 to match the $50,000 from MBLC. I am going by memory on this however so feel free to correct me if that is wrong.

    As to your statement about putting the question to all Amherst voters, I disagree. This major expenditure does not require an override – only the Council’s vote (notwithstanding any further citizen/resident actions to delay because of the petition).

    And further to the petition issue, and back to my original question above – what about the large number of signatories (30+) who requested that their signatures be removed because they felt misled or pressured into signing?

    Don’t you find this troubling?

  18. I have returned to live in Amherst after living a decade in Maine. A Commonwealth requirement is that to drive a car, you must have a Massachusetts Driver’s license. Dutifully, I went to Greenfield and scrawled my John Hancock on RMV’s electronic signature devise. Now it comes time to register to vote online in Amherst and I have to check off whether I agree to use the signature on the Driver’s License as my signature. I took a look at signature on my Driver’s License and thought, “that’s not my signature at all”. I can imagine being tossed off any petitions I might choose to sign because the signature on record just ain’t me.

    I know of a neighbor of forty year’s standing who’s signature was declared invalid. The Board of Registrars is reading dangerous ground is refusing to review the signatures that were submitted. To what end?

    Jon K. Rosenthal

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