My Turn: Referendums: Let the voters decide


Published: 4/15/2021 2:51:21 PM

In a November, 2019 Greenfield referendum, 3,294 voters supported a new library, 2,068 voted against the library, 6,478 voters stayed home. 72% of Greenfield voters either voted against the library, or abstained by not voting. To get on the ballot, the citizens opposed to the library gathered 462 signatures — far more than the 316 signatures required by the City Charter.

Six months after the library vote, the mayor and the City Council president appointed seven members to a Charter Review Committee (plus one ex-official member). Six members of the committee were active supporters of the library. After 11 months of work, the Committee will present its recommendations by the end of April to the City Council. It is expected that the committee will recommend requiring citizens who want a referendum to gather 1,272 signatures (10% of registered voters), increasing by four times the signatures required for the 2019 library referendum.

Our Charter refers to the referendum as a “protest.” A more neutral definition is “a process which allows citizens to refer acts of the legislature to the ballot before they become law.” Five of the eight members of the committee are current or former members of the City Council. Executive and legislative branches often view a referendum as an abrogation of their power. “Lawmakers don’t like it, citizens do like it,” the director of the Initiative & Referendum Institute told the Recorder in 2002. “We should tread lightly because the initiative process has been a fundamental check and balance on representative government.”

During the committee’s Zoom meetings, referendums were called “a third branch of government,” a way for citizens to “resist” government. One committee member explained: “I want the referendum process to be hard but not too hard.” Another member admitted: “People want the signature level to be high when they disagree (with the issue), and to be low when they agree.” Another said referendums were needed because “elected government can act badly.”

A Recorder editorial in 2019 got it right: “While we want voters to be able to challenge a vote, we don’t want to make the number so low the council is barraged by nuisance challenges to every vote it takes. Likewise, it shouldn’t be so ridiculously high that people can’t protest a vote.” The few local referendums we’ve had were neither frivolous nor a nuisance: building a new library, a ban on foam containers and plastic bags, opposing a biomass lease, limiting new gas station construction, and challenging rezoning for a big box store.

The Charter Committee had three metrics to balance: 1) what percentage of voter signatures to require 2) to use a percentage of “voters voting” in the last election, or the larger number of “total registered voters” 3) how many days to gather signatures. Our 2002 Charter required signatures from “5% of the total number of registered voters,” to be gathered within 30 days.

In 2018, the Charter was amended to require referendum signatures from 10% of the total number of “voters voting” in the most recent regular biennial election. The “voters voting” in 2017 were only 27% of the total. Our 2019 mayoral election attracted only 47% of total voters.

The new Charter Committee favors going back to using the total number of registered voters but they doubled the 2002 threshold from 5% to 10%. The 2020 presidential election has boosted Greenfield’s registered voters to a new high of 12,719. Citizens would have to gather 1,272 signatures. Citizens need 45 days to collect signatures, because the committee recommends giving the city attorney 10 days to review legality, plus three days for the City Clerk to print petition papers. I testified in favor of using “5% of the total number of voters,” as in the 2002 Charter, or 636 signatures today. One committee member argued for 20% of registered voters, or 2,544 signatures. That’s more votes than the mayor got (2,068) in 2019.

Anything over 5% of total registered voters would have a chilling effect on government “by the people.” The Council should heed the advice of the Recorder and not pass a threshold “so ridiculously high that people can’t protest a vote.”

The City Council should not determine rules for how to challenge a City Council vote. I urge readers to contact their City Council members and ask them to “Support 5% of total voters (636 signatures) for any referendum, and use section 7-10 of the Charter to put the proposed Charter on the ballot–so all voters get to vote on it.”

Al Norman of Greenfield has written about the referendum rights of citizens since 1993, when he was part of a business-citizen coalition that stopped rezoning for a big box zone.

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