City lawyer: Library petition should go to vote

  • The Greenfield City Council voted in favor to approve a deal for a new library in March at the Greenfield High School. After a citizen’s petition of the vote, the library may go to the ballot later this year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2019 10:17:01 PM

GREENFIELD — The city’s lawyer knocked down the idea some City Councilors floated last week that the council could ignore a citizen’s referendum petition concerning the library.

City Attorney Gordon Quinn’s legal opinion, which calls this the “least legally risky approach,” sets the stage for the council to send the $19.5 million public library question, which it approved in March on a narrow vote, now to the ballot box for a, likely, final say.

“Our city needs to move forward and get closure on this issue,” City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud said Monday in response. “Having citizens be able to have their voices heard through a vote is the path forward. And I completely respect and understand that other councilors may feel differently.”

If the City Charter is read literally, then the council could decide to not take up the petition former councilor Steve Ronhave brought forward last month, Quinn said in a legal opinion he issued late Friday.

“This appears to be what is called for under the literal language,” Quinn said. “I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out a legal risk if the council applies the language as it literally reads.”

If the council chose to not allow the petition to go to a vote, the city could face a lawsuit, he said.

At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass said he is aware of potential lawsuits, and said one could follow even if it does go to an election, but doesn’t go to a regular election in November, pending results.

The problem the city is faced with, Quinn said, is the charter is not well written.

In 2017 the council recommended changes to the charter to make it more challenging for citizens to petition its votes. After it went through Beacon Hill, the language came out with a different meaning than the intent of the change, Quinn said.

“After reading through attorney Quinn’s response and hearing both sides of the issue make compelling arguments, I believe the right thing to do is to bring this to the voters,” Renaud said.

City Councilors present for Committee Chairs last week, Renaud, At-Large Ashli Stempel, Precinct 6 Sheila Gilmour and Vice President Penny Rickettsall mulled the potential of killing the library petition before it has a chance to go before the voters.

The first vote will come this Wednesday, in which councilors can formally put the library up to a vote. The councilors will have to decide whether it will go to a special election or at the November mayoral election — an issue that has also divided them.

Quinn said the council could seek his opinion on when it can hold the election.

Some councilors have signaled holding a special election in the summer as a potential act of voter suppression. Others have said holding a special election would be a way to save the city money; these councilors quote the library project developer, who said construction costs would rise by at least $43,000 a month.

“I don’t think we’re in a position where we have a practical choice other than to place it on the ballot,” At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass said. “And I don’t think we have a practical choice other than to put it on the November ballot.”

Mass said he believes Quinn was alluding to the fact the city could be in a precarious position if it chooses to go to a special election instead of the regular election.

For a special election to be binding, it needs at least 25 percent of the city’s voters to come to the polls; special elections traditionally draw small crowds, and this election would be held during summer vacation. In the 2017 November citywide election that drew several candidates for municipal office, 27 percent of Greenfield voters came out.

“One way we know we can finally put this issue to bed, for good or for bad depending on your point of view, is to put it to a vote in the November municipal election,” Mass said.

Renaud said last week at the committee meeting she felt the issue of the library was a hot enough topic that people would come out to the polls. She said to the Recorderthat she was not concerned that putting it to a vote in the summer may not yield a true a polling of Greenfield’s residents.

Some of the councilors have said the petitioners could have followed the statewide process for petitioning a vote of the council, which has a higher threshold for signatures collected.

Quinn said the council should seek to clean up the charter language, regardless of what happens with the library vote.

“In any event, we advise that the council should seriously consider reviewing and seeking a ‘formal’ change to the language,” of citizen referendum petition in the charter, Quinn said in his opinion, “to avoid the recent confusion over its proper interpretation.”

Mass, an attorney, agrees and said that this part of the charter “needs to be cleaned up and fixed.”

Renaud said she plans to push for changes to be initiated this summer, including scheduling extra meetings to get it done.

“This should be a number one priority,” Renaud said.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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