Amherst Town Council Votes To Put Jones Library Project On November Ballot

Jones Library. Photo Art Keene.

(Editor’s note, 8/4/21: This article has been updated to include additional comments.)

Town Council Hopes For “Rapid Resolution” of Pending Lawsuit, While Plaintiffs Seek Court Decision to Prevent Voting Rights Violations

The $35 million Jones Library reconstruction project will be placed before the voters on Nov. 2, when all local elected posts in Amherst will also be on the ballot. 

The Monday (Aug. 2) 9-to-3 vote, with one town councilor absent, comes months after petitioners initially sought a referendum in April, and submitted 1,088 signatures to the Board of Registrars. More than 22% of those signatures were disqualified by the Town Clerk’s Office, which maintained that it was granted authority to certify the petitions at a 3-minute meeting of the Registrars on April 21. The Clerk’s Office announced later that day that the petition failed by 22 signatures to meet the threshold of 864 certifiable signatures, or 5% of the town’s registered voters.

Amherst Media’s video of Monday’s virtual Town Council meeting is here, with discussion of the library referendum beginning around minute 25.

A lawsuit filed by 40 plaintiffs, seeking certification of disqualified signatures and setting of a referendum date, in now pending in Hampshire Superior Court.

“By taking this action, we hope we will reach a rapid resolution regarding the pending lawsuit,” said Town Council President Lynn Griesemer. “While we strongly believe the Town will ultimately prevail in the lawsuit, and the actions of the Town Clerk’s Office and the correct application of the Town’s new Charter will be affirmed, the cost to the taxpayers in defending the Town will continue to grow and uncertainty about the project will remain. We believe it is important to eliminate uncertainty as to the future of this important project and for the Town to move forward as a community.”

In a press release on Tuesday, Town Manager Paul Bockelman stated that he would seek the lawsuit’s dismissal through a negotiated agreement with the plaintiffs, or a court order.

Petitioner Rita Burke, a registered voter in Amherst for 40 years whose signature was disqualified, said a lawsuit should not have been necessary to get the Town to set a referendum.

“The Town’s scheduling of a vote on the Jones Library measure shows that it wrongfully failed to certify signatures. Unfortunately, it took a lawsuit and a court scheduling a hearing to get the Town to ‘do the right thing,'” she said.

Burke noted that the lawsuit seeks not only a referendum, but a court order to redress violation of the plaintiffs’ rights, and to ensure that the Town doesn’t wrongfully reject signatures and deprive voters of their First Amendment rights again.  

“After the hearing on August 23rd, the Court will examine the signatures that were wrongfully rejected and, hopefully, render a decision that will prevent not only the plaintiffs from having their rights violated in the future, but all voters.  Absent a court order, anyone could have their signatures wrongfully rejected again in the future,”  Burke said.

The pending lawsuit maintains that dozens of petition signatures were disqualified over trivial issues which are invalid for rejection under state regulations, including addition or omission of a middle initial, abbreviation (or lack thereof) of the words “Street” or “Brook,” in an address, or addition of the words “Amherst,” “Massachusetts,” and a zip code.

The Council has held several closed sessions about the lawsuit, Terry Y. Allen vs. Board of Registrars, including one which began at 6:30 p.m. Monday night. The Council did not reconvene in open session until 8:15 p.m. 

There was no general discussion by the Town Council about the move, although there minor edits to the ballot question language were made. Those who voted in favor of the measure included Griesemer, Councilors Alisa Brewer, Darcy DuMont, Patricia De Angelis, Shalini Bahl-Milne, Dorothy Pam, Cathy Schoen, Andy Steinberg, and George Ryan.

Those voting against the motion included Stephen Schreiber, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Evan Ross. Councilor Sarah Swartz was absent.

The ballot question language adopted is below:

QUESTION: Shall the following measure authorizing a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, as voted by the Town Council on April 5, 2021, be affirmed?

BE IT ORDERED by the Town Council of the Town of Amherst that: The Town appropriate $35,279,700 for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and to meet this appropriation, authorize the Treasurer, with the approval of the Town Manager, to borrow said amount, under and pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 7, 8, or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the Town therefore, which borrowing shall be reduced to the extent of any grants received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, funds received from The Jones Library, Incorporated in an amount no less than $5,656,576 which, in addition to the $1,000,000 previously appropriated under the Community Preservation Act, represents the Library’s share of the total project cost, and/or any other source to pay costs of this project; and, further, any premium received by the Town upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to project costs approved by this vote with a reduction of borrowing authority therefore by a like amount in accordance with M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 20.

SUMMARY: On April 5, 2021, the Town Council voted with 10 in favor, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention, to authorize a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has awarded the Town a grant of approximately $13.8 million for this project with payments starting this year; approximately $5.7 million will be provided through private donations as set forth in an agreement with the Jones Library Board of Trustees; and $1.0 million was appropriated from the Community Preservation Act funds. With these funds secured, the Town’s share of the total project costs will be approximately $15.8 million. A “yes” vote on this question means that you affirm the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and want the project to continue. A “no” vote means that you reject the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and do not want the project to continue.

Recent legislation has passed to allow for early voting and mail-in ballots similar to the election in fall 2020 during the COVID pandemic. The November 2nd ballot will include a question about the Jones Library, in addition to the candidates for all seats on the Town Council, School Committee, Jones Library Board of Trustees, Housing Authority, and Oliver Smith Will Elector.

On Monday night, the Town Council also voted to permanently shift voting for Precincts 2, 4 and 10 to Amherst Regional High School. Precinct 2 formerly voted at the North Fire Station, and 4 and 10 at the Bangs Center.

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8 thoughts on “Amherst Town Council Votes To Put Jones Library Project On November Ballot

  1. Since your article doesn’t mention it, I wonder if this ballot question will require a 2/3rd majority to pass since it is around borrowing money? I believe all borrowings required a 2/3-rd majority in Town Meeting, and this one in particular required a 2/3rd majority in the recent council vote…

  2. My understanding is that the question requires 50% +1 AND a minimum 20% of registered voters from most recent election turnout. If the ballot gets less than 50% plus one or fewer than 20% turnout, the original decision of the Council stands.But it strikes me as confusing that they framed this as a question of affirmation since the voter petition asked for the decision to be overturned and the 20% rule results in a failure of the measure if that threshold is not met (i.e. a failure to affirm). If a majority do favor setting aside the original decision then the Council must come back with a new proposal, though it is not clear to me that they would be legally prohibited from coming back with something only cosmetically different from their original borrowing. (See section 8.4 of the charter). Of course the decision how to proceed from there will fall to a new Council and we as a town will cross that bridge when we come to it.

  3. This is the chapter and section of the Massachusetts General Laws on borrowing for capital projects:
    https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter44/Section7
    Section 7. Cities and towns may incur debt, by a two-thirds vote, within the limit of indebtedness prescribed in section 10, for the following purposes and payable within the periods hereinafter specified not to exceed 30 years or, except for clauses (2), (3), (6) and (7), within the period determined by the director to be the maximum useful life of the public work, improvement or asset being financed under any guideline issued under section 38:

    (1) For the acquisition of interests in land or the acquisition of assets, or for the following projects: the landscaping, alteration, remediation, rehabilitation or improvement of public land, the dredging, improvement, restoration, preservation or remediation of public waterways, lakes or ponds, the construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, improvement, alteration, remodeling, enlargement, demolition, removal or extraordinary repair of public buildings, facilities, assets, works or infrastructure, including: (i) the cost of original equipment and furnishings of the buildings, facilities, assets, works or infrastructure; (ii) damages under chapter 79 resulting from any such acquisition or project; and (iii) the cost of engineering, architectural or other services for feasibility studies, plans or specifications as part of any acquisition or project; provided that the interest in land, asset acquired or project shall have a useful life of at least 5 years; and provided further, that the period of such borrowing shall not exceed the useful life of the interest in land, asset acquired or project.

    (2) For a revolving loan fund established under section 53E3/4; to assist in the development of renewable energy and energy conservation projects on privately-held buildings, property or facilities within the city or town, 20 years.

    (3) For the payment of final judgments, 1 year or for a longer period of time approved by a majority of the members of the municipal finance oversight board after taking into consideration the ability of the city, town or district to provide other essential public services and pay, when due, the principal and interest on its debts and such other factors as the board may deem necessary or advisable.

    (4) In Boston, for the original construction, or the extension or widening, with permanent pavement of lasting character conforming to specifications approved by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation established under chapter 6C and under the direction of the board of park commissioners of the city of Boston, of ways, other than public ways, within or bounding on or connecting with any public park in said city, including land damages and the cost of pavement and sidewalks laid at the time of said construction, or for the construction of such ways with stone, block, brick, cement concrete, bituminous concrete, bituminous macadam or other permanent pavement of similar lasting character under specifications approved by said department of highways, 10 years.

    (5) For the cost of repairs to private ways open to the public under section 6N of chapter 40, 5 years.

    (6) For the payment of charges incurred under contracts authorized by section 4D of chapter 40, but only for those contracts for purposes comparable to the purposes for which loans may be authorized under this section. Each authorized issue shall constitute a separate loan, and the loans shall be subject to the conditions of the applicable clauses of this section.

    (7) For the cost of feasibility studies or engineering or architectural services for plans and specifications for any proposed project for which a city, town or district is authorized to borrow, 5 years if issued before any other debt relating to the project is authorized, otherwise the period for the debt relating to the project.

    (8) For energy audits as defined in section 3 of chapter 25A, if authorized separately from debt for energy conservation or alternative energy projects; 5 years.

    (9) For the development, design, purchase and installation of computer hardware or software and computer-assisted integrated financial management and accounting systems; 10 years.

    (10) For the cost of cleaning up or preventing pollution caused by existing or closed municipal facilities not referenced in clause (20) of section 8, including cleanup or prevention activities taken pursuant to chapter 21E or chapter 21H, 10 years; provided, however, that no indebtedness shall be incurred hereunder until plans relating to the project shall have been submitted to and approved by the department of environmental protection.

    (11) For any other public work, improvement or asset with a maximum useful life of at least 5 years and not otherwise specified in this section, 5 years.

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