Amherst council approves townwide vote on Jones Library project

  • An artist’s conceptio shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Staff Writer
Monday, August 09, 2021

AMHERST — Voters will get to decide the fate of the $36.3 million Jones Library expansion and renovation project this fall.

Facing continuing litigation from residents pursuing a voter-veto petition under the town charter, which town officials have maintained was unsuccessful due to an insufficient number of signatures, the Town Council approved placing a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot on Monday.

“This action, we hope, will lead to a rapid resolution regarding the pending lawsuit,” Council President Lynn Griesemer said following the 9-3 vote.

All councilors except At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke and District 4 Councilors Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber voted in favor of the referendum. District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz was absent.

Only Griesemer offered comment after the vote, noting that a referendum could help unify Amherst.

“We believe it is important to eliminate uncertainty as to the future of this important project and for the town to move forward as a community,” Griesemer said.

In April, the council voted 10-2, with one abstention, to authorize $15.75 million in borrowing to renovate and expand the Amity Street building for the first time since an addition was completed in 1993. This borrowing matches a $13.87 million construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Additional money is expected to be sought from private donors, and the library project also depends on $1 million from the town’s Community Preservation Act account.

Plans developed for the project show the library would increase in size from 48,000 to 63,000 square feet, while its interior would be modernized. Included in the extensive renovations would be numerous repairs to air-handling systems, wiring, carpets and elevators. The building would also get a dedicated teen space, a bigger children’s room so that more families can participate in programs, an enlarged and climate-controlled area for special collections, and improved space for the English as a Second Language program.

Griesemer said the decision to put the project in the hands of voters reflects that in the face of a continuing challenge to the town’s invalidation of a petition seeking a townwide referendum on the project, the cost of legal fees to the town would continue to grow and uncertainty about the project would remain, though she added that councilors had confidence the town would prevail in the lawsuit.

The vote came after an executive session with KP Law attorneys Lauren Goldberg and Gregg Corbo that ran for more than 90 minutes. KP Law has been defending the town after petitioners went to court, contending that some of the 1,088 signatures turned in were thrown out for improper reasons, such as incomplete street addresses or missing middle initials.

The petitioners needed to collect 864 certified signatures, or 5% of registered voters in town, but fell 22 signatures short as just 842 were certified by the Board of Registrars.

Hampshire Superior Court Judge Richard J. Carey recently informed the council and the petitioners that he would review all signatures submitted at a hearing on Aug. 23. He has also suggested that the secretary of state could intervene in the matter.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said with a referendum scheduled, he will seek to have the lawsuit dismissed through a negotiated agreement with the plaintiffs or through a court order.

Though this is the first time voters will weigh in on the Jones Library project, it was a significant issue in contested campaigns for the library’s board of trustees in both 2017 and 2018. Incumbents supporting the project prevailed against their challengers with 59% of the vote in 2017, and then 62% of the vote the following year.

Austin Sarat, president of the library trustees, wrote in an email that the board looks forward to informing the community about the renovation and addition. A “yes” vote for the library, he said, will ensure that the Jones continues to serve all residents for decades to come.

“We are confident that when Amherst’s residents learn about the project they will conclude that it is fiscally responsible and will advance the town’s commitments to environmental sustainability, social justice and historic preservation,” Sarat said.