Ad hoc board sends proposed charter changes to Greenfield City Council subcommittee

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-12-2023 6:27 PM

GREENFIELD — After more than four hours of discussion Tuesday night, the ad hoc committee tasked with reviewing a portion of the city charter pertaining to citizens initiative petitions and citizens referendums sent a series of recommendations to City Council.

Though not all proposed changes were forwarded with a positive unanimous recommendation to the council, some included: setting an initial threshold of 150 signatures to initiate a citizens initiative petition process under Section 7-7; setting a total number of signatures for a citizens initiative petition at 650 — meaning 500 supplemental signatures if rejected by the relevant body — to reach the ballot, a total that would mimic the threshold set for citizens referendum in Section 7-8; and requiring a public hearing as part of the citizens initiative process. Timeframes for different stages of the process were also recommended.

From here, the recommendations will be taken to the Appointments and Ordinances Committee, a subcommittee of City Council, where language will begin to be drafted.

“However difficult any of this has been, I want to thank all of you for your perseverance, for your willingness to compromise and your willingness to listen,” David Singer, chairman of the ad hoc committee, told fellow members prior to the board formally disbanding on Tuesday evening.

Committee origins

With citizens initiative petitions, new issues or ideas can be proposed to the City Council or the School Committee, or brought to a ballot if rejected by the respective body. By comparison, the citizens referendum process allows citizens to propose an existing law or ordinance be brought to voters for reconsideration.

The formation of the ad hoc committee followed a November 2021 ballot question, which sought to change the number of signatures required by the charter for a citizens referendum petition from the current threshold of 10% of voters voting in the most recent biennial city election (but no fewer than 2.5% of registered voters) to 7% of all registered voters in the most recent biennial city election. The question came as part of the charter review process, which takes place every year ending in zero.

The ballot measure was defeated by a vote of 1,485 “no” votes to 1,321 “yes” votes. This meant the language in Section 7-8 of the charter would remain as it is currently.

City Council President Dan Guin previously explained that in light of the November 2021 vote, the Appointments and Ordinances Committee recommended no changes to Section 7-7, which pertained to the citizens initiative petition process. However, this recommendation was met with criticism from residents who felt the processes for the two types of petitions should be more in line with one another.

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Per the charter, as it was revised in 2010, a resident seeking to submit a citizens initiative petition must collect signatures equivalent to 10% of voters voting in the last biennial election — but not less than 5% of all registered voters at the same date — for the City Council or the School Committee to accept or reject.

If rejected, that resident would then need to collect an additional number of signatures equivalent to 5% of voters voting, but not less than 2.5% of all registered voters.

Recommendations

The conversation Tuesday night began with a motion to accept language for the two sections drafted by committee member Al Norman. Fellow member Isaac Mass, however, expressed frustration with receiving the proposed language “at the last minute.”

The motion, which was discussed for nearly 90 minutes, with the merits of the various proponents debated, was ultimately tabled.

Members quickly agreed on certain aspects of the process, however, such as the inclusion of a public hearing before the City Council or the School Committee to discuss the citizens initiative petition. A subcommittee of the relevant public body — appointed by the chair or president — will convene to host a dialogue with the petitioning committee, after which, a vote by the body can be taken.

Other elements of the process were more heavily debated. In particular, the ad hoc committee debated the number of signatures that should be required to bring an initiative to the ballot.

“I think 150 and 500 are numbers regularly used for ballot collection,” said Mass. “I also think it has been the middle ground consistently throughout.”

Norman, however, didn’t feel the 650 total signatures represented a compromise. He used the example of the November 2021 election, when voters voted to keep the charter language the same, which at the time would require around 338 signatures.

“I was convinced that the 10% of voters voting was likely to be between 500 and 600 signatures total this coming November. … After that, it will fall,” Norman explained. “The next election after that, which is a non-mayoral election, will probably be back in the 300 or 400 range. I’m fine with 600 being the total. … I don’t want to end up with anything higher than 600.”

Singer, however, argued 650 signatures was a figure in the middle of those outlined in the original charter (2000) and the current charter.

“My job is to represent my constituents,” added Precinct 1 Councilor Katherine Golub, who also serves on the ad hoc committee. “Having conversations with people since the vote … and recently, there is a strong sentiment that in between is the right place to be. I know there are a group of people who want it to be low, and probably who want it higher. My job is to represent where most people come together. That’s why I will support this.”

Norman was the sole dissenting vote on the matter.

One of the final votes the committee made was for the charter language to ultimately include the preamble that Norman wrote as part of his drafted versions of each section. Golub, along with fellow committee member and Precinct 9 Councilor Derek, Helie assured members that their discussions and recommendations would be relayed to City Council for drafting charter language.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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