State of citizen referendum petition in confusion after council meeting


Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2019 11:17:02 PM

GREENFIELD — The ability, if at all, citizens have to petition decisions made by the City Council remains in question following a special meeting of the council Tuesday evening. 

The council Tuesday night at Greenfield High School met to ratify the language that the governor signed into law in 2017. Ultimately, At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass withdrew the motion following debate among the council. 

The meeting came partly in response to an attempt by sprawlbuster Al Norman to petition the council’s vote on zoning changes last month that were a part of the deal to approve a new public library. 

Norman said Tuesday night he is still considering “all options,” including legal routes on what to do next about the citizen referendum petition process. 

His petition was deemed invalid last month by the city’s lawyer, but since then Norman has raised broader questions about why citizens cannot petition the council as they could in the past. He says it’s because of a clerical error in a change to the charter Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in 2017. Norman argues it was not an actual act of the Legislature nor was it the council’s intention based on minutes from 2016. 

The current law, as signed by the governor, does not directly allow citizens to petition votes of the council. When the council chose to amend the charter in 2016, it doubled the amount of voters it would take to push through a petition.

Gordon Quinn, the city’s lawyer, said Tuesday night the law is the law, even though “it’s true that perhaps the original intent of the council” to remove the right of citizen to petition a council vote. He said, based on email with state Rep. Paul Mark, that the changes were made in the third reading of the bill while in committee on Beacon Hill. 

“It appears to have been an intentional decision of that committee,” Quinn said. 

The bill did not change in the third reading to reflect these final changes signed by the governor, based on a review of the bills and the history of them. Quinn said, following the meeting, he had not personally read the third reading of the bill that he was referencing to but was relying on the word of Mark. 

Mass made a point to explain why the charter language, which removed the right of citizens to readily petition a vote of the council, is a good thing.

“Habitually this council receives votes that are on a deadline to have government go forward,” Mass said. “The function of government essentially could be forestalled by the tyranny of a very small minority.”

At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel said she was “really confused” about the question before them Tuesday to ratify a piece of the charter that was already signed into law. 

“Is this the contentious point that we’re being emailed about?” Stempel said.

Among other residents, Norman has sent several emails on the matter in the past week.

Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler said the language was a “radical change” in the charter from what the council originally voted. He called for the council to review citizen petition measures in general at a future date. 

Precinct 3 Councilor Brickett Allis, who is running for mayor, said he didn’t catch the change in the charter as signed by the governor. 

“I think councilors at the time were under the assumption it came back the same and that’s a terrible assumption,” Allis said. 

“Further, given the whole way this thing has happened,” Allis continued, “I don’t see anything we do tonight as putting the issue to bed.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

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