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Greenfield councilors question whether to honor library petition

  • Greenfield Public Library on Main Street. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2019 11:17:42 PM

GREENFIELD — City officials are now not only sorting through whether to push for a library vote at a special election this summer instead at the November mayoral election, but whether they have to allow for a citywide vote in the first place. 

Ed Berlin, lead of the grassroots library campaign that helped secure a vote of the Greenfield City Council in March for the $19.5 million public library, asked councilors attending the Committee Chairs meeting Tuesday night why the city has to honor a petition turned in last month by former councilor Steve Ronhave. 

“Just turn it down. Don’t allow this,” Berlin said before the councilors present, including Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud and Vice President Penny Ricketts. “Your power is being challenged.”

Berlin explained that he believes the city’s charter, as written, does not allow for citizens to petition a measure the council previously approved. 

“If those people want to sue us, let them sue us,” Berlin said. 

Berlin said the costs of building the library are escalating every month action is not taken.

Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler said he was informed by the project’s developers that the costs of not building are $43,000 per month in 2019 and $45,000 per month in 2020. This could lead to the project not coming in under budget, he said, meaning less money could be returned to the city at the end.

Renaud was fielding comments about her proposal to call for a special election in late June on the library. At the table were Ricketts, At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel, Precinct 6 Councilor Sheila Gilmour and Precinct 7 Councilor Wheeler — all of whom voted in favor of the new library in March. Mayor William Martin, Chief of Staff Mark Smith and City Clerk Kathy Scott were also present. 

Smith said he plans to seek an opinion from the city’s attorney Gordon Quinn today to find out whether the petition submitted by Ronhave is valid. Quinn’s decision may inform Renaud and the council as to whether it should move forward with a ballot question, at any time, on the library. 

Originally Ronhave and Al Norman, the sprawlbuster who is against the zoning changes the council also approved in March, had submitted petitions to the council with about 15 signatures. They followed procedures that had been valid in years past. The city’s lawyer has said these petitions were not valid because they did not meet the requirements in the charter to get 10 percent of the city’s voters.

While Norman questioned whether the city still had a way for citizens to petition votes of the council, Ronhave collected 300-plus signatures to meet the threshold, within the 30-day required timeframe. 

For the first time publicly, Tuesday night the councilors began to question whether Ronhave’s petition was in fact valid.

The dialogue had been on whether it was more financially prudent to call a special election or include it in the November election. 

Costs of holding a special election have been estimated to be anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 by city officials. 

Berlin said the project would not begin construction during the fall and winter months, but the intensive engineering process would. 

Stempel, along with her fellow councilors on the committee, said she preferred that the city hold a special election because the delay could increase costs.

She said she sees it as “ironic that people who are concerned with saving money” are the ones who want the election to be held in November and not earlier. Stempel said the “no” library side has had months to voice their opinions and did not. 

“If we’re going to spend it, we’ll spend it,” Stempel said about the $19.5 million public library. “It’s on them.” 

Following Stempel’s comments, Berlin said it impassioned him to speak. 

Ricketts echoed Stempel’s thoughts on why the people not in favor of the library were not louder earlier. 

“I’m equally as confused as to why this one, especially this small of a group, gets to decide all of this after we’ve heard from literally hundreds of people in the last few months,” Ricketts said. 

Supporters of the library, often wearing green shirts and sometimes carrying green balloons, packed in many council meetings for months to lobby for a new building, following receiving a $9.4 million grant from the state to foot almost half the costs. 

Precinct 1 Councilor Verne Sund, who was in attendance at the meeting as he typically is although he is not a member of this group, offered his views on why people against the library didn’t speak loudly.

“The reason a lot of them didn’t show up is because of what happened to me,” said Sund, who voted against the new library. 

In December, Sund, then seen by library supporters as a crucial swing vote, said he didn’t see the need for this new library based on the argument of accessibility issues. He said people can get around if they try, as he had seen oversees while in the armed services. He later walked back this, saying he didn’t communicate his point clearly. 

In response, a group of citizens began a movement to remove him from the council. Sund said he and his family received numerous hateful messages and letters. 

“To me, it doesn’t take a lot of bravery that you don’t want the library,” Renaud said in response to Sund. 

The council president recalled receiving hateful messages and images after she stood on the Greenfield Common in solidarity after the Orlando nightclub shootingthat had targeted LGBTQ people. She noted people throwing items at a home when a Black Lives Matter lawn sign was placed on it. 

“I respect you, but I strongly disagree with you,” Renaud said. 

On the issue of what the council should do about the petition, Wheeler read the charter to his fellow elected officials. 

“We all know this section of the charter is messed up,” Wheeler said, pointing to potential missing words in the governor-approved charter. “It’s intention doesn’t matter. What matters is the text that’s here.” 

Based on the language of the current charter Wheeler said: “I’d argue there’s no need to move forward.”

Councilors questioned the existing citizen referendum petition process and its usefulness in their governance. 

Ricketts said she wanted the council to be careful in its next steps as it may set a precedent for future petitions. 

Gilmour, who is running for mayor, asked for the mayor’s office to find out from the attorney if they can not accept Ronhave’s petition — before the council gets a chance to vote on whether to allow for the library to go to an election, and if so, whether it will be a special election or the next regular election.

 “What’s the worst case scenario if we just say no?” Gilmour said. 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

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