Amherst voters who petitioned for a town-wide referendum and then discovered that more than one in five petition signatures they submitted were wrongly disqualified by the Town Clerk’s Office expressed satisfaction that the Board of Registrars will meet to discuss the issue on Friday, May 7.
“We are hopeful that the Board of Registrars appreciates the seriousness of this matter, and will take actions that will ultimately rectify the wrongful disqualification of dozens of registered voter signatures,” stated Carol Gray, the lead petition organizer. “We believe that when the Board looks carefully at the affidavits we collected from petition signers, it will find that these voters should not have been struck.”
The petitioners filed a complaint under the state’s Open Meeting Law (OML) on May 4 with the Town and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, stating that notice of an April 21 Board of Registrars meeting was inadequate to inform the public of the subject to be discussed. The complaint also claims there was “impermissible deliberation” before the meeting, and failure to conduct deliberations in public about delegation of authority to the Town Clerk’s Office. Meanwhile, the petitioners noted that no formal motion was made or seconded at the meeting.
According to the complaint, the Board of Registrars should “re-hold” the April 21 meeting, and conduct a new meeting in full compliance with the OML.
“We are eager for this process to be conducted properly,” said petitioner Marla Jamate. “As registered voters, we have the right to petition local government, and to trust that petitions submitted will be certified in accordance with the law.”
The petition group seeks a referendum on the Town Council’s vote on April 5 to borrow over $35 million to reconstruct the Jones Library.
According to the Town Clerk’s Office, the group submitted 1,088 signatures on April 20. However, the Board of Registrars, at a meeting of less than three minutes on April 21, (with one member absent) and without explanation, delegated authority to certify the signatures to the Town Clerk’s Office. The Amherst Home Rule Charter regulations on Voter Veto petitions state that “the Board of Registrars shall ascertain the number of voters that signed.”
The Town Clerk’s Office announced the next day the petition group was short by 22 of the 864 certifiable signatures needed to trigger a referendum. The office had disqualified 246 signatures.
Board of Registrars’ member Demetria Shabazz sent a letter on May 3 to Town Clerk Susan Audette, Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and the Town Council. In her letter, Shabazz expressed “great concern over the recent actions by the Town Clerk’s Office.” She noted that documents sent to the Board of Registrars concerning the petitioners’ appeal were not forwarded to her, although several days had passed since they were filed.
“As a Registrar, I take my duties seriously and I am aware that such appeals must be considered within certain time limits,” Shabazz wrote, calling upon the Town Clerk’s Office to provide the documents “immediately.”
Shabazz stated that she was not at the April 21 meeting due to a medical appointment, and was not consulted about its timing, or made aware that the meeting’s purpose was to delegate the authority to certify signatures.
In subsequent communication between the petitioners and the Town Clerk’s Office, the petitioners learned on Wednesday, May 5 that Open Meeting Law violations would not be on the agenda for Friday’s Board of Registrars meeting. Attorney John C. Bonifaz, an Amherst resident and constitutional attorney, sent a letter to the Board of Registrars on Wednesday. In that letter, Bonifaz urged the Board to “reverse this decision and to add this item to the agenda immediately.” Bonifaz wrote that the Open Meeting Law complaint was delivered to the Town Clerk’s Office in sufficient time to be added to the agenda, and said the complaint is “directly relevant to the discussion,” about the petitioners’ appeal. He added that there is a “direct and serious conflict” in having the Town’s attorney, Lauren Goldberg of KP Law, advise the Board of Registrars, since she is representing the Town Council, Town Manager, and Town Clerk in this matter.
“The Board of Registrars must act independently and with adherence to basic principles of due process, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution,” Bonifaz wrote.
The notice for Friday’s Board of Registrars meeting states that it will discuss the “appeal and objection to the failure to certify signatures for the Voter Veto petitions.” The agenda also includes the election of a temporary chairperson.
The petitioners objected to the disqualification of over 100 signatures, and have filed affidavits from 89 individuals who assert that they are registered voters in Amherst, who signed the petition and wrote their addresses in their normal manner. The disqualified group includes former town employees and former local elected officials, along with well-known professors at UMass and the colleges. Among the group are many people who have been registered to vote at their same addresses in Amherst for years, and even multiple decades.
State law requires that signatures be “substantially as registered” but does not penalize individuals for minor variations such as adding or omitting middle initials, or use of common nicknames. The affidavits submitted include four times as many signatures as the petitioners would need for the Voter Veto petition to pass.
Petitioner Rita K. Burke, who is a retired Town employee, said she was disqualified although she is a registered voter who has lived at her same address for decades. “I wrote in the address that I have lived at for about 37 years, and signed my name the way I always do. I am sure that I was disqualified in error,” she said.