SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 16, 2014

'No' vote on Brimbal faces high bar

20 percent of city's registered voters must vote against rezoning

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — A simple majority won’t be enough for the “no” vote in next month’s special election.

Mayor Mike Cahill said yesterday that the city charter requires 20 percent of the city’s registered voters to overturn a measure through a ballot question.

That means more than 5,000 people will have to vote “no” on Feb. 8 to defeat a rezoning measure that would allow a shopping center to be built on Brimbal Avenue with a special permit from the Planning Board.

It also means that the “no” vote could lose even if more people vote “no” than “yes.”

“It’s clear as you read the city charter,” Cahill said. “They need to meet two thresholds: a majority of voters and at least 20 percent of registered voters.”

In response to a question from City Clerk Kathleen Connolly, then-City Solicitor Roy Gelineau concluded in a Dec. 30 opinion that the 20 percent threshold applies in the case of a citizen referendum election that is trying to rescind a measure passed by the City Council or School Committee.

The question on the Feb. 8 ballot asks voters if they approve of the Brimbal Avenue rezoning measure adopted by the City Council. A “yes” vote affirms the rezoning, and a “no” vote defeats it.

The rule creates a high bar for advocates of a “no” vote. As of yesterday, the city had 25,518 registered voters, according to Connolly. Twenty percent of that number is 5,103.

Last November’s city election drew 10,413 total voters, or 41 percent. The September preliminary drew 5,213, or 20 percent.

Dan DeAngelis of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association said he disagrees with the interpretation that the city charter requires the 20 percent threshold for referendum petitions such as the Brimbal Avenue one. He said the requirement applies to the section of the charter referring to citizen initiatives, which propose new measures, and not to citizen referendums, which seek to overturn measures.

“We don’t believe that is true, but the city solicitor says it is true,” DeAngelis said.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “We don’t just need 5,000 people to show up at the polls, we need 5,000 people to show up and vote “no.” Even if we win 100 percent of the majority, we could still fail because we couldn’t get enough people to the polls that day. Let’s make it an even race between the two sides, so both sides get a chance.”

Cahill said the authors of the city charter wanted to ensure that a vote to overturn a decision by elected officials would “represent the will of a significant percentage of the electorate.”

“If you had a special election with a very low turnout, you wouldn’t see significant policy changes made in the community by a really small percentage of voters,” Cahill said.

DeAngelis said drawing voters will be made more difficult by the City Council’s decision to hold the special election at a single polling place, Beverly High School, rather than the usual six voting locations in wards throughout the city.

“It’s certainly not going to help voter turnout,” he said. “Telling people they have to go to a polling place they’ve never gone to before just is not fair.”

The City Council voted on Dec. 2 to hold the election at Beverly High School, but the Secretary of State’s office ruled that the city needed special legislation to make the change.

That legislation passed the House of Representatives yesterday and will now go to the Senate and then to the governor.

In a letter to legislators urging passage of the legislation, Gov. Deval Patrick said the single polling location will “ease traffic and save money.”

DeAngelis said forcing everyone to vote in the same place will make traffic worse, not better.

Connolly, the city clerk, said the city will save money with one polling location because fewer police officers and poll workers will be needed. She said she was working on exactly how much those savings will be.

Saturday is the last day to register to vote for the Feb. 8 election. The City Clerk’s office will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday at City Hall for residents to register.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.