, Salem, MA

January 23, 2014

Our view: 20 percent rule a fair standard for Beverly

The Salem News

---- — Beverly voters got it right in 1995 when they approved a new charter that contained a provision making it more difficult for small groups of citizens to dominate city policy through referendum.

That rule, which requires 20 percent of the city’s registered voters to overturn a measure through a ballot question, will come into play Feb. 8, when citizens will be asked to weigh in on the future of Brimbal Avenue.

On that day, voters will be asked if they agree with the City Council’s decision to rezone a 3.6-acre piece of land on Brimbal. The change would allow a land swap between the state and a developer, paving the way for the developer to apply for a special permit from the Planning Board to build a $20 million shopping plaza. The development, which would be home to a Whole Foods Market, would trigger $5.2 million in traffic changes that include moving the Sohier Road/Brimbal Avenue connector road and building roundabouts at both ends of the road.

The plan, which has been in the works for the better part of a decade, has drawn recent opposition from neighborhood residents, who say the project is too large for the area and would cause a traffic nightmare.

While those opponents were able to gather enough signatures to bring the measure before voters next month, the next step in the process is more daunting: More than 5,000 people will have to vote “no” on Feb. 8 to overturn the City Council’s decision.

While that is a very high bar, it is that way for a reason, said Charles Grimes, who served as chairman of the Charter Commission in 1995.

Commission members, he said, wanted to make sure that decisions by an elected council couldn’t be overturned by a small group of opponents.

“You could have 500 people go to the polls out of an electorate of 25,000,” Grimes told reporter Paul Leighton. “We need to have a clear statement by enough of the population to know this is not some fluke.”

Those against the project, of course, see it differently.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” said Dan DeAngelis of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association. “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.”

The process has been fair. What opponents fail to recognize is that Beverly’s is a representative democracy, where voters select fellow citizens to represent their interests. Every disputed decision can’t be put to a simple, up-or-down citywide vote (let’s not think about the financial state the city would be in if naysayers had been able to scuttle the redevelopment of the Shoe into the Cummings Center).

If residents don’t like the way City Council is behaving, they can replace City Council. They had the chance at last November’s citywide elections, which came at the height of the debate over the Brimbal Avenue proposal. There was no groundswell of opposition to the project that manifested itself at the polls, either in the citywide race or in other wards. It’s safe to say the plan still has the support of a large majority of the council, as well as the mayor.

Most of those officials, as well as a large swath of city residents, see the project as more promise than plague. The work will bring new jobs and an expanded tax base to a community that needs both to continue to thrive. Tossing aside the will of a city requires more than a vote from a relatively small number of opponents, no matter how heartfelt their opposition.