New school petition drive raises questions

WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – A group of citizens opposed to the Ashley Street elementary school project are seeking to collect signatures of registered city voters to overturn a recent City Council vote to transfer land on Ponders Hollow Road from the Fire Commission to the Park & Recreation Commission.

That 9-4 vote, opposed by At-large Councilors Dan Allie, David A. Flaherty and Cindy Harris and Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell to transfer the land to the Park & Recreation (P&R) board was made to satisfy a National Park Service requirement concerning property taken from the Cross Street Playground for construction of the elementary school.

The National Park Service requires that the Park & Recreation Commission be compensated with land of equal or greater value to the land transferred from the Park & Recreation Commission to the School Department for construction of the 96,000-square-foot, 600-student elementary school.

The school construction project has been opposed by a group of Cross Street residents who have litigated, and lost, the project in Superior Court. The residents have now initiated a petition drive with the goal of putting the land transfer before the city’s 24,000 registered voters.

The petition sponsors, The Friends of the Cross Street Playground need to secure the signatures of 20 percent of city registered voters to add their referendum question to a ballot. The group is seeking to force the City Council to rescind its vote to transfer care, control and custody of the Ponders Hollow Road property from the Fire Department to the Park & Recreation Department. That action will further delay the elementary school construction, referred to as the giant school in the petition, if not kill the project.

A City Clerk official said that no petition papers have been received for validation of signatures, a process that will take time. The deadline for submission of the petition documents was September 23rd. There is confusion about the referendum process because of language in the City Charter, Section 47 requires signatures of 20 percent of the city’s 24,000 residents, while Section 48 requires signatures of between 8 and 20 percent of the registered voters in the city

· Section 47. – Procedure upon receipt of petition; failure to adopt; special election.

Except as is provided in section 48, if the number of registered voters that signed an initiative petition is not less than 20 percent of the total number of registered voters, within 20 days after certification by the registrars of voters that the petition has been signed by the required percentage of registered voters, either:

The city council or the school committee shall pass the measure without alteration, subject to referendum vote as provided by this Charter; or
The city council shall call a special election to be held on a Tuesday fixed by the city council not less than 30 nor more than 45 days after the date of certification by the registrars of voters and submit the proposed measure, without alteration, to a vote of the registered voters of the city at that election; provided, however, that if any city election is otherwise to occur within 90 days after the date of such certification, the city council may, at its discretion, decline to call a special election and submit the proposed measure to the voters at such other previously pending election.
· Section 48. – Failure to adopt; measure submitted at next biennial election.

If the number of registered voters that signed an initiative petition is between 8 percent and twenty percent of the total number of registered voters and such measure is not passed without alteration within 20 days by the city council or the school committee, as provided in section 47, such proposed measure shall be submitted by the city council, without alteration, to a vote of the registered voters at the next biennial city election.

City Solicitor Susan Phillips said Monday that her office is discussing the petition with the Secretary of State’s office to resolve a number of questions. One question is that absentee ballots have been available since Sept. 17 and that some residents have already returned those ballots.

Phillips said that it is “unlikely” that the petition process will be completed in time to include the group’s referendum question on the Nov. 3 ballot and that it is more likely that a special election, which could cost the city between $35,000 and $40,000 will be needed.

“The signatures have to be certified, then it goes to the City Council, then there is a 10 day appeal period, so it is unlikely that the question will be on the Nov. 3 ballot,” Phillips said, adding that the Law Department will not focus time and money on the issue “until the signatures needed are certified, I will not spend taxpayer money until I know the signatures needed to a referendum are valid.

Phillips said that area other issues, such as dealing with who will write a short summary for the group seeking the referendum, the pro side of the issue, and any group which comes forward to oppose the referendum. Phillips said that her office has to sign off on those descriptive passages to ensure the information being presented to voters is accurate.

Ward 2 City Councilor said Monday that he “just keep shaking my head” about the position of the Friends of the Cross Street Playground, two of whom are Holyoke residents, but whose mother still resides on Cross Street across the street from the school site.

“The petition group is totally forgetting the kids at Abner Gibbs, at Franklin Avenue and now the kids being bused to Russell, don’t those kids deserve a facility equal to the other elementary schools in the city,” Figy said. “Killing the school project will not save any taxpayer money because we already owe millions and will have to pay more.”

Figy said the city has spend $3.77 million of the $35 million bond approved by the city council and that there are additional costs with the associated with the original contractor, Fountain Brothers Inc. of Springfield, which purchased materials for the project.

At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean II said that the City Council “spoke when we voted to approve the land transfer, it needed a super majority of nine of the 13 City Council members voting in favor of the transfer.

“And I believe that the project is something that the community as a whole wants,” Bean said.

The Flood Control Commission, at its Sept. 16th meeting also raised the issue about Ponders Hollow Road property because of the presence of a flood control levee which runs through the site. That committee has ownership and control of all of the flood control structures in the city.

The commission has had discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers regarding maintenance and rehabilitation of the Little River Levee. A chief concern of the Army Corps of Engineers is for the city to acquire ownership of the levee, the majority of which is still in private hands.

The Corp of Engineers built the levee under an emergency declaration with the understanding that the city would later acquire title to the properties on which the levee was constructed. Only about 800 feet of the levee is owned by the city.

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