Petition filed over library vote

  • The Greenfield City Councilor approved a deal for a new library and commercial zoning changes March 20 at Greenfield High School. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2019 10:51:40 PM

GREENFIELD — An initial petition to send the recent vote on a new public library to the ballot box has been filed in the City Clerk’s Office, although the viability of it is in question.

The petition comes in part as a response to the ones sprawlbuster Al Norman filed last month to put a temporary halt to the zoning changes approved by the Greenfield City Council as a part of a deal that its brokers deemed as a compromise to heal decades-long divides.

But like Norman’s petition that was initially ruled invalid by the city’s lawyer, this one could also face a similar fate, depending on how the city attorney reads it.

The citizen’s referendum petition, filed by resident Steven Ronhave to the clerk on Tuesday, may face additional scrutiny that Norman’s did not. Certain types of votes by the council cannot be petitioned, including “revenue loan orders.” The library vote on March 20 approved the city spending $19.5 million on a new public library, with the assistance of a $9.4 million state grant that needed to be accepted by April 30.

If residents were able to put a vote on the library to the November election, and it was then voted down by citizens, the city would have to pay back the state the money it spent to date, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Communications Director Celeste Bruno. The first payment from the state is about $1.9 million, and would have to be paid back with interest.

In the meantime, some city councilors are posting on social media regarding the petitions.

City Council Vice President Penny Ricketts posted on her Facebook page Tuesday evening following a special meeting of the council over the citizen referendum petition process: “DO NOT Sign PETITIONS - Keep moving forward Greenfield!”

Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud, one of the brokers of the deal with At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass, posted Tuesday afternoon on her page that among three referendums in the works, one was to stop the library and two to stop the zoning.

“Please do not sign any of these petitions!” Renaud posted on Facebook. “And spread the word!”

Renaud noted Mass has “nothing to do with the library petition.”

Last week Mass said in a statement to the Recorder regarding Norman’s petition to undo the zoning changes was a “dangerous game.”

“If he is right, he can pause the two zoning measures and put them on the ballot where they may pass or fail, but it would also allow the anti-library people to collect and pause that decision before putting it on the ballot which could not happen before the deadline to approve to accept the grant,” Mass said March 27. “The result would be the voters could approve both zoning changes or not, but there definitely would be no library.”

Since then, there have been several conversations in town about whether residents have the right to petition votes of the council in the first place, and if they still do, by what means.

One possible way is to collect about 319 signatures, 10 percent of the voters from the last biennial election, to initiate the process. This fact remains unclear to city officials as they scramble to sort out the petitions in front of them in the midst of the budget season.

Norman has argued that a clerical error in a change of the charter, signed into law by the governor in 2017, removed the typical way to slow a vote of the council — which used to require 10 signatures to start the process.

On Tuesday night, the council met for a special meeting to try to clarify this matter, but it resulted in no action and left several questions and statements about the overall process.

Mass said the “function of government essentially could be forestalled by the tyranny of a very small minority” in the old way and that the revised charter was intended to make it more challenging to petition a vote of the council.

By Wednesday, questions continued to linger about the overall process.

An email exchange between Norman and state Rep. Paul Mark, D- Peru, said the change in language over the charter “appears to be an intentional change, not a simple typo.”

“The first sentence is completely rewritten,” Mark said. “We are trying to track down where that actually changed and why, but so far nobody can point us to that specific occurrence.”

The change was not made in the third reading of the bill, which was the initial belief of the city’s attorney, but signed into law differently by Gov. Charlie Baker.

“Regardless of the how or why, if the current law is contrary to the intention of the charter changes and they want it amended, they should send me new language to be filed in the current Legislature,” Mark wrote to Norman.

Norman said he is still exploring his options. “I’m not going to give up the fight to restore that zone,” Norman said Wednesday. “If my only option is legal, then that’s what I’ll do.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

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