Cloud cast over Greenfield library-for-zoning vote

  • The Greenfield Town Hall Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2019 11:18:38 PM

GREENFIELD — The hard-fought library-for-zoning City Council deal may rest on shaky ground.

At the center of the potential quake is a question over language in the city charter that has been raised by Greenfield’s commercial development “sprawlbuster” Al Norman.

Norman opposes relaxation of commercial development restrictions along French King Highway and other parts of the city, that the City Council narrowly approved last week in exchange for support of a new public library. He now says he’s discovered a glitch in the city charter that may allow him to appeal that decision through a referendum, although city officials aren’t sure that he is correct.

Norman has opposed big box and chain development in Greenfield since he led a referendum that overturned approval of a Walmart in the 1990s. He has since become a nationally known consultant for those who fight large developments like Walmart stores.

After last week’s vote for easing retail development on French King Highway, Norman sought to organize a referendum to overturn the vote but was told by city officials upon initial review that the petition was likely ineligible.

Now, Norman thinks he’s found an error in the charter that will allow his petition to move forward. But a referendum on development may entangle and kill plans for a library as well.

City officials still had several unanswered questions on the overall matter by the end of Wednesday. The brokers of the City Council deal, President Karen “Rudy” Renaud and At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass, cautioned Norman’s move could jeopardize the library.

Depending on how the city’s attorney rules in the coming days or weeks, Norman may be able to stall the zoning changes and send the matter to the ballot box in this November’s city election.

If “what Al is suggesting is true, (it) is a dangerous game,” Mass said in an email Wednesday. “It would also allow the anti-library people to collect and pause that decision” which could jeopardize the $9.4 million state library grant that would cover roughly half the project’s cost. The state has wanted an answer on the grant by April 30. A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners was not immediately available for comment.

On Sunday, Norman wrote the city “to inform your office that the language found in Section 7-8 of the Greenfield Town Charter … is erroneous and does not accurately reflect the actual language that was approved by the Town Council.”

Norman said the accurate language can be found in minutes of a meeting from August 2016 when the city amended the charter. The words “of any measure” were dropped after it left the council for legislative approval and the governor’s signature. The proper version, Norman argues, would allow for citizens to petition anything the council votes. Instead, the existing language limits what citizens can overturn by referendum.

Mayor William Martin said it is not uncommon for charter language to change when it goes to the Beacon Hill. He noted if it came back wrong at the time, the council would have likely taken issue with it, which it had not when it was signed into law by the governor in January 2017.

“This would be a major civil rights loss to the residents of Greenfield without anyone knowing it,” Norman said this week after he consulted with appellate lawyer of 35 years and former Greenfield town councilor for 15 years Wendy Sibbison, who is a friend of his.

“Between the Town Council’s minutes and the Legislature approving what they passed, those three words went missing,” Sibbison said when reached Monday. “Whose fault is it? I don’t know. But we call it ‘scrivener’s error’.”

Renaud said Wednesday this was no error.

“The intent of the language change in 2017 was to prevent people from undoing what the Town Council had just voted on,” Renaud said. Citizens still have the right to petition decisions of the council, Renaud said, but the potential effect of a ballot vote would not be effective until a year later.

The council will meet for a special meeting Friday at 1 p.m. in the second floor meeting room of City Hall to officially ratify the current charter language. Renaud called the meeting in response to the issues Norman raised.

Renaud took issue with Norman’s methods of trying to find ways to overturn measures approved by the council.

“What I’m seeing here is an attempt for somebody who is not an elected official to once again cost the town lots of money and energy because for him and the folks that follow him things didn’t work out the way they wanted it to,” Renaud said Wednesday. “I say he should run for office. There are plenty of open seats. He can run for my seat.”

Particularly at a time when the city’s Planning Board is in court over an appeal led by Norman of a big box store the city approved eight years ago, she said: “This whole process of having the town spend money in court, go to the ballot box, or threatening lawsuits — I don’t see that as democratic at all because only the people who have means to do that can do that. It’s really frustrating to me.”

“Every time he does this he’s costing the town so much money,” Renaud continued. “This latest research project has cost our town clerk so much time. I wish he would pay the town back for this.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264


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