Singer, Norman debate citizen’s petition requirements in advance of City Council consideration




Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2021 5:33:16 PM

GREENFIELD — Charter Review Committee Chair David Singer and Greenfield activist Al Norman spoke Friday to their differing opinions on changing the number of signatures required in the citizen’s referendum process, but did agree on one thing: The change should be left up to Greenfield voters.

City Council is expected to soon consider the Charter Review Committee’s recommendations that come after a year of reviewing and deliberating, and vote on the proposed changes in June. The committee has discussed everything from issues concerning the Greenfield School Department, fiscal procedures, elections and related matters — including how many signatures are necessary for citizens to get a referendum on the ballot, which proved to be a contentious issue.

On Friday morning, Singer, who is a lawyer in Greenfield and a former City Council president, and Norman met on William Newman’s WHMP radio program. Newman, of Lesser Newman Aleo & Nasser in Northampton, moderated the discussion about the proposed change in the number of signatures that need to be collected to put a referendum question on the ballot.

Norman has argued that the change from the signatures required to reflect 5 percent of the registered voters who voted in the previous election to 10 percent of all registered voters “builds a wall” around the City Council and its decisions.

“Citizen participation is of great importance,” Newman said before asking the two to speak.

“I believe the change is a potential threat to the First Amendment,” Norman said. “We have a right to address a grievance.”

Norman said the change would mean, for instance, that someone who wants to collect signatures on a citizen’s petition for a referendum question would have to collect 1,272 signatures compared to 300, 400 or 500 signatures.

“It’s difficult enough to gather more than 500 signatures,” Norman said. “More than 1,200 is ridiculously high.”

Norman said the other proposal would allow people only 17 days to collect those signatures, which he believes is almost impossible. Norman said he plans to collect signatures for a citizen’s referendum for the fall that will ask voters whether they want the increase in required signatures. He said what would make it simpler is if City Council votes to put the question on the ballot.

Singer responded to Norman’s complaints by saying, “There is another side to the story.”

Singer said he did not decide to chair the Charter Review Committee to “harm, hinder or suppress.” He said he believes people should be able to petition their government, and that his committee did not intend to “build walls” when making its recommendation on this particular issue.

Singer explained that a referendum is not a First Amendment issue, but rather a way to make sure a lobbying minority does not have control, but rather the majority.

“It’s about allowing a majority of voters to petition and put an issue on the ballot to overturn an unpopular decision by the governing body,” he said. “It’s a populist issue, not an amendment right.”

Singer gave examples of referendum votes in Greenfield, including biomass and the library construction, and said that it was clear with the biomass issue that a majority of people in the city were concerned about a plant being built in Greenfield. When put on the ballot, the contract was defeated by a 2-1 margin.

“There were so many people against it, that could have easily gotten 1,200 or more people to sign the petition,” he said. “On the other hand, less than 400 people signed a petition to block the library and when it went to the ballot, a majority voted to move ahead with the plans.”

By comparison, Singer said Northampton and Pittsfield require 15 percent of all registered voters to sign a petition, while West Springfield and Easthampton require 12 percent.

“And remember,” Singer said, “people sign petitions for all sorts of reasons, including just getting it on the ballot. Then, some people vote for and some against whatever the petition is asking. They sign to get it to a vote. So, if you have 12,500 registered voters in your city and need 1,200 signatures to get something on the ballot, not everyone has to support it. It’s just a matter of getting it there.”

Singer said he wants to see some balance.

“The City Council, for instance, puts a tremendous amount of effort into the issues that come before it,” he said. “I want to see that petitioners also have to put effort into what they want. I don’t want to see anything stifled. I want to ensure the majority rules, not the minority. It shouldn’t be easy to block any and all decisions made by the City Council, for example.”

Norman disagreed, saying 1,250 signatures is a high wall that some might not be able to scale.

“This is an enormous change,” he said.

Singer said a citizen’s petition and the referendum that follows is not an individual right, but a collective one. He said typically when something like that happens and citizens feel strongly enough to do something, it means the council isn’t listening or has tuned out the majority.

“People shouldn’t petition every time they disagree with a vote,” he said. “And if enough people are really upset, it won’t be that difficult to get 10 percent of registered voters. If a majority wants to be heard, people will sign. We shouldn’t be thinking about how hard it is to get people to sign, but a measure of why they are or aren’t.”

Singer said he does agree with Norman in that the question should be on the ballot.

“It really should be up to the voters,” Singer said.


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