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Somerville Judge Won't Intervene

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    Judge signs off on city s call to reject petition signatures By Andrea Gregory September 30, 2005 http://www.thesomervillenews.com/ The November ballot looks
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2005
      Judge signs off on city's call to reject petition signatures
      By Andrea Gregory
      September 30, 2005
      http://www.thesomervillenews.com/


      The November ballot looks like it will not ask residents to decide
      if Somerville should divest its financial holdings in Israeli bonds.
      The deadline passed this week without the city recognizing any of
      the signatures needed to bring the issue to voters.

      The Somerville Divestment Project (SDP) began almost two years. Its
      mission - to take action that will have an effect on a far away
      conflict. The group saw pulling any financial investments tied to
      Israel as one way of accomplishing its goal. The hope was that local
      voters would feel the same way, forcing Somerville to yank its
      investments.

      But getting the question on the ballot required 10 percent of the
      city to agree it was something worth voting on. Collecting almost
      4,000 signatures from registered voter was a big task, but Ron
      Francis, head of SDP, thought his group of activist could pull it
      off.

      However, the group wanted to do things its own way, using its own
      petition forms instead of the ones drawn up by city officials.

      After the city refused to certify the first batch of signatures, SDP
      sought legal action. On Thursday, Justice Julian Houston, of the
      Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, heard the case. Houston
      rendered an oral verdict upholding Somerville's decision not to
      certify the signatures since SDP had failed to collect them on
      proper forms.

      City officials had drafted what they considered to be unbiased
      wording of the question that could have possibly appeared on the
      ballot. Using the proper forms also would have ensured the group was
      not collecting signatures prior to 90 days before the election. The
      signatures SDP handed in last month did not have dates.

      "From the city's perspective, it was upholding the integrity of the
      process," said John Gannon, city solicitor. "The city has a process.
      The city was willing to work with SDP, and they decided to go their
      own way. It's all about ensuring the integrity of the electoral
      process."

      Gannon said out of the signatures that were originally handed over
      to the city, only about two-thirds were actually registered voters
      and Somerville residents. The others would not have counted, he said.

      After the court ruling, SDP still had until 5 p.m. on Sept. 26 to
      hand in signatures on the proper forms, but nothing more was filed
      SDP does have the option to appeal the judge's decision, but Francis
      is not saying what if anything is the next plan of action.

      "We can, but it's not clear that we will," he said.
      Francis said making the issue and SDP's mission public is still an
      accomplishment. He also claims SDP did collect more than enough
      signatures by the deadline even if they were never handed over.
      "It's a high hurdle to reach," said Francis.

      Comments

      There are some facts here that readers need to have filled in. A
      city official told another newspaper that SDP was told in March that
      they could not collect signatures until August 9. In fact, the
      election commission did not communicate this position to SDP until
      August 10, in a letter which I have seen, dated August 1 but mailed
      August 9. That letter makes no reference to any earlier
      communication.

      The August 9 letter was also the first time the election commission
      tried to insist on supplying its own petition forms.

      The problem is, SDP could not have accepted the City's forms,
      because their proposed question was radically rewritten, omitting
      almost all the wording that SDP intended to appear on the ballot.
      Had SDP accepted the City form and managed to collect the signatures
      all over again, the petition's opponents would have challenged it
      legally on that ground, and the legal process would have dragged on
      til past the election.

      This sort of trick is unfortunately all too common in petition
      campaigns.

      Judge Houston deferred to the City's discretionary power in setting
      the forms to be used to gather signatures. That kind of customary
      deference is no doubt what the City counted on. However, He did not
      agree with the City that signatures could be collected only after
      August 9.

      Somerville City Hall has again acted in bad faith, just as they did
      when barring SDP and our organization, Mystic River Green-Rainbow,
      from participation in ArtBeat this summer.

      The real object of these actions was clearly to defend the interests
      of the State of Israel and our cowardly local pols by keeping the
      divestment petition off the ballot and out of public debate. They
      succeeded in blocking the petition, but in doing so they have only
      exposed role of local politicians in undermining the republic for
      the sake of empire.

      ===

      Shame on Somerville Officials
      Christina Bolton


      The Mayor and other city officials should be ashamed of
      themselves. When 4,500 signatures are collected to put a question on
      the ballot and they refuse to even consider the signatures by
      blocking the question using slippery legal technicalities. What
      blatant disregard for citizens concerns and democratic process. The
      large number of signatures collected is the clearest message that
      the citizens of Somerville want the right to vote on divestment from
      Israel bonds and military companies in November, and those we elect
      to serve in city hall are supposed to uphold our rights to
      democratic process, not attack them.



      Before the Somerville Divestment Project began collecting
      signatures in the spring, we read all the state & city laws on
      ballot question initiatives. We spoke to the State Elections
      Department who told us that under Chapter 53- Section 18A- we could
      begin collecting petition signatures at any time, and that the form
      we use need only be `substantially similar' to the state form. We
      also spoke to people in the city elections office who told us we
      could use any form we like as long as the names and addresses were
      legible and the form was signed, they even said "you can write them
      on notebook paper if you need to, the form doesn't matter."



      So you can imagine our surprise when on August 9th we received
      the City Solicitor's opinion which said we'd have to use some
      special form the city came up with and that we could only begin
      collecting signatures 90 days before the election. Their form
      changed all the language on the petition we'd submitted to the Board
      of Alderman. Which, even according to the judge who ruled against
      us, makes the form invalid and is against election law (Why, then,
      did he rule against us? He gave no precedent, and his only reasoning
      was illogical; he said they told to use their form and we should
      have used their form, after admitting the form was fatally flawed.
      Where is the justice?). Our lawyers thought this changing the form
      to one without our original language may be just another way to trap
      us into a different technicality – if we use a form that does not
      have the language submitted to the Board of Alderman that's not
      valid either.

      Our lawyers encouraged us to go on collecting signatures with
      our original form and referred to the wording of the laws and how
      they don't say anything about either the city having the right to
      come up with their own form, nor their 90-day before the election
      proclamation. The city had plenty of time and many opportunities to
      tell us of its `opinions.' We'd filed as a Ballot Question Committee
      months before and we filed the petition with the Board of Alderman
      as we were supposed to (at least 90 days before the election). The
      Mayor is clearly trying to harass us and stop us at all costs. He's
      already made up some special rules to exclude us from Artbeat. First
      we were the only Somerville group excluded, then when he was advised
      that he was violating our civil rights, he barred another group too,
      so it wouldn't look as bad. I, for one, am tired of Mayor Curtatone
      acting like he's God.



      In court, the city even tried arguing that our petition
      language was `inflammatory' (how inflammatory can it be if more than
      10% of Somerville voters signed a petition to put it on the
      ballot!). How can they even stand there and make these arguments,
      what ever happened to Freedom of Speech? That they want to censor
      all the facts out of the petition should be of concern to all.
      Whether you think the Somerville Divestment Project is the most
      moral, just citizens movement in this country or a bunch of crazies,
      you should still be outraged at the idea of a petition that refers
      to international law, the UN, and the Geneva Conventions being
      censored from the ballot solely because this issue deals with
      withdrawing our financial support for the state of Israel. The law
      clearly states that the city must put the question on the ballot if
      we bring them 10% of registered voter's signatures (3,966). We did
      the work to have this question put on the ballot; we were out there
      every night this summer collecting signatures. That the city would
      try to stop us is a flagrant violation of its role and our rights.
      The ability of citizens to put a question on the ballot is a right
      preserved in our constitution. It is a safeguard to preserve our
      right to be represented when those in power refuse to represent us
      for their own political reasons. This is at the heart of democracy.
      The city cannot make up the rules as it goes. If we'd had a set of
      well-funded hot-shot lawyers we could have forced the city to uphold
      the law. Please, all who read this, go read the laws and speak out.
      It is a real shame when those put in power to uphold democracy
      abandon it for their own aims.



      Christina Bolton

      SDP Neighborhood Coordinator

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