Under “action items,” the agenda lists “Placement of a question on the ballot at the November 2, 2021 Town Election concerning the measure voted by the Town Council on April 5, 2021 approving the borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library.” The agenda notes that there will be a Council discussion, along with motions and votes.
When asked for clarification on the purpose of the action item, Council President Lynn Giesemer said “This item will allow the Town Council to decide if we want to place a referendum question regarding the Jones Library on the ballot. I am not able to comment on the relationship of this item to the active lawsuit. Nor am I in a position to predict actions of the Town Council.”
Meanwhile, the agenda also includes appointment of a single Town Councilor to the “Jones Library Building Committee,” although the role of such a committee could be in question if the referendum is set and voters do not approve the borrowing.
The news of a possible referendum follows a months-long long effort by petitioners to have the library expansion and renovation project borrowing put on the ballot. In a lawsuit now pending in Hampshire Superior Court, Terry Y. Allen vs. Board of Registrars, 40 voters maintain that their signatures on referendum petitions submitted in April were wrongfully disqualified, for inconsequential and unlawful reasons, and that the petition prompting a Voter Veto referendum should be certified.
Petitioners expressed a “wait and see” attitude over the news of a possible referendum on Friday. “We will watch to see how things unfold,” said Rita Burke, a registered voter whose signature was disqualified. “We are glad the Town Council may acknowledge that the Voter Veto petitions we collected in April, under difficult pandemic circumstances, contained more than the required number of certifiable signatures to prompt a referendum under the Amherst Home Rule Charter.” Burke added that she hopes the Town Council will take steps to improve petition forms, and to review the Town’s voter registration rolls, to eliminate a repeat of the errors that were made with the Jones Library Voter Veto petition.
Hampshire Superior Court Judge Richard Carey issued an order on July 21, setting an expedited schedule in the lawsuit. “The court is satisfied that, in the interest of justice, a somewhat expedited briefing and hearing schedule … is appropriate,” the judge wrote.
Municipal Boards of Registrars are responsible for certifying signatures on nomination papers and petitions, but the Town Clerk’s Office claimed that it obtained authority to certify instead at a virtual, three-minute Board meeting on April 21. Although 1,088 signatures were submitted, the Clerk’s Office reported that petitioners were 22 certifiable signatures short of the 864 needed – a number which represents five percent of the Town’s registered voters in the most recent local election.
The current lawsuit states that the Board of Registrars owed a duty to the plaintiffs and other petition signers to comply with state law about signature certification, and to uphold their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The case asks the court to conclude that the 5% threshold for a referendum was met since the Town wrongfully failed to certify dozens of petition signers who had signed “substantially as registered” in compliance with State law.
Under the Amherst election calendar, the deadline for the Town Council to advise the Town Clerk to place a referendum on the November 2021 ballot is September 28.
Judge Carey’s July 21 order sets an in-person evidentiary hearing for Aug. 23 at 10 a.m. He also ordered the plaintiffs to serve Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s Office with his order and their motion for summary judgment “so the Secretary may determine whether he wishes to intervene in this matter.” Galvin oversees the state elections division.
The court will “need to evaluate” the Board of Registrar’s reasons for non-certification of challenged signatures, Carey wrote, to determine if the Board properly applied state laws and regulations.
The plaintiffs state that their signatures were disqualified unlawfully, based on insignificant differences between the information they provided and the town’s voting rolls. Plaintiffs’ signatures were disqualified for adding or omitting middle initials, failure to abbreviate “Lane” or “Road” in an address, or including the words “Amherst,” “Massachusetts,” and a zip code after a street name.
The Massachusetts General Laws require only that a person sign “substantially as registered.” Boards of Registrars are supposed to certify a signature if they can “reasonably determine from the form of the signature the identity of the duly registered voter.”