Montague Selectboard considers legality of village name change

  • An online campaign to change the name of Turners Falls to Great Falls and a counter-campaign to retain the name have both continued to draw support since they were launched about a month ago — so much so that town officials are investigating the legality of a potential name change. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2020 12:51:28 PM

MONTAGUE — An online campaign to change the name of Turners Falls to Great Falls and a counter-campaign to retain the name have both continued to draw support since they were launched about a month ago — so much so that town officials are investigating the legality of the potential name change.

The two competing campaigns are each represented by online petitions on change.org. The petition started by Knox Huppert to rename the village had 2,562 digital signatures as of Monday night (bit.ly/3ifM4iO), while the petition started by Denise Milkey to retain the name (bit.ly/31wEDhm) had 1,312 signatures.

In an online meeting on Monday, the Selectboard acknowledged that the two petitions exist, and discussed some legal aspects of the issue that town officials had been unclear on when last discussing the question in June.

“It’s a very divisive and concerning issue for everybody,” Selectboard Chair Rich Kuklewicz observed.

First, town governmental action — such as changing the name of a village — cannot be forced by petition.

However, it is possible to place a votable article on a Town Meeting warrant by petition. In this case, the content of such an article would most likely be a Town Meeting-endorsed request to the Massachusetts Legislature to create special legislation that would establish the village of Great Falls.

The legal establishment of a village in Montague would, surprisingly, be a first-of-its-kind event. Town Administrator Steve Ellis explained that he had asked the town’s legal counsel to investigate the legal status of Turners Falls. So far, Ellis said, counsel’s research has found no state legislation establishing the villages. In other words, Turners Falls might not exist in Massachusetts law.

At the federal level, however, there are legal references to Turners Falls. For example, the U.S. Postal Service still uses a Turners Falls ZIP code. The U.S. Census Bureau also recognizes it as a place within Montague.

For reasons like those, and to be sure to avoid any other legal conflicts, town counsel is still recommending — if the town does decide to change the name of Turners Falls — that it do so through a Town Meeting request for special state legislation, Ellis said.

Montague normally has a Special Town Meeting in October, although the timing this year may be slightly different, due to the uncertainty of the state’s budget, Ellis noted.

To get an article on the warrant for a Special Town Meeting takes 100 signatures from registered Montague voters. To get one on the warrant for an Annual Town Meeting (usually held in May) takes 10 signatures.

Online petitions are not legally valid, however; with one of the problems being that there is no way of guaranteeing that the signers live in Montague.

Huppert, who started the petition to rename the village, was advised by Town Clerk Deb Bourbeau of these rules about two weeks ago. Several volunteers started collecting real signatures that week, Huppert said.

Milkey, the creator of the online counter-petition to retain the name, participated in the Selectboard’s online meeting on Monday.

“I thought it was important that it be decided by the voters,” she said, “and not just be decided by a committee.”

Depending on the progress of Huppert’s signature-gathering campaign, voters may be called to decide on the issue as soon as this fall.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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