Somerville Judge Won't Intervene
- Judge signs off on city's call to reject petition signatures
By Andrea Gregory
September 30, 2005
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
SDP Neighborhood Coordinator
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