My Turn: A megaphone only few can afford


Published: 7/20/2019 1:26:27 PM

Citizen referendum petitions are an instrument that residents can use to overturn a vote of their municipal legislative body. It’s an effective and useful tool of democracy. It keeps a check and balance on representative local government. Starting and following through on a referendum petition is not an easy process, nor should it be. If you are trying to prove that the voters do not agree with a vote taken by their elected representatives, then the imperative is on the petitioners to prove it.

A little while ago, as a member of the Appointments and Ordinance Committee of the Greenfield City Council, I was part of making some tweaks to our process of filing citizen referendum petitions. We had public hearings on the changes and did our due diligence in making sure the language was lawful. Because it was a charter change, it needed to be approved by the state legislature.

When the state legislature sent us back the charter change on citizen referendums, they made their own alterations. For reasons unknown, the state actually made the process more complicated by changing the language we sent them. We are currently working on fixing what the state did and will send it back again.

So, while our citizen referendum process is not perfect, there are still two ways you can overturn a council vote. You could acquire the required number of signatures spelled out in the charter now and turn it in to the City Council. That is exactly what the folks who want to overturn the library vote did when they turned in over 400 signatures. And hence, the question of whether or not to use a $9 million grant and build a new library will be on the November ballot.

Or, if you do not want to utilize the City Charter because of the muddy language, you could file a referendum petition by following Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 43, Section 42. This language applies to every municipality across the state.

In regard to putting zoning on the ballot, proponents never turned in the requisite number of signatures. They could have done what the library opponents did and collected over 400 signatures, or they could have followed the state process. Instead, he has sued the city, claiming that we should be forced to put zoning on the ballot.

Every time Greenfield gets sued, we have to pay to defend ourselves, no matter how unjustified the claim. Every tax dollar spent on paying an attorney to deal with a lawsuit is money we could be using for services that improve the lives of our residents.

Not only that, but most importantly, I can’t think of a process that’s less democratic than using litigation to compel an elected body to bend to your will. This is a process that’s only open to people with resources, time and money. That leaves most of the residents of Greenfield without that option, or same kind of voice and megaphone a lawsuit brings.

How democratic is that?

Karen “Rudy” Renaud is president of the Greenfield City Council.

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