NORTH ADAMS -- Following the filing of a citizens' petition asking the City Council to rescind its approval of a $29.7 million borrowing order for the renovation of Conte Middle School, local and state officials are questioning what the move could mean for the overall project.
The petition, due 20 days from when the order was approved, had to be submitted by three registered voters along with signatures from at least 1,050 (12 percent) of the city's registered voters. It was filed Monday afternoon by former City Councilor Robert Moulton Jr., Hulda Hardman Jowett and Katherine Montgomery.
City Clerk Marilyn Gomeau confirmed Monday that a petition was dropped off at 4 p.m., an hour before the filing deadline.
"The process now is that we have five days to certify that there are enough signatures and those signatures are from registered voters in the city," Gomeau said. "The Board of Registrars will review the list and put their approval on it. Then it will be submitted to the council."
Moulton said Tuesday the petition was accompanied by 1,804 signatures collected over the 20-day period set out in the city's charter. The city's total number of registered voters on Feb. 5 was 8,751.
"This was done by a large amount of people, a diverse population of several dozen people," he said. "We don't believe the council really listened to the people. We believe there are a lot of residents out there with a different perspective of what the best thing is for the city. We're sending a message with this petition. We want to see it come to a vote. We're putting this in the people's hands."
If the council votes to keep the borrowing order intact, a special election would need to be called. The petition calls for a special ballot question that would read: "Do you approve of the borrowing of $29,692,594 to pay the costs for an addition and renovation of Silvio O. Conte Middle School? Yes or No?"
Moulton said he was not sure what the overall impact on the project would be if the borrowing order was voted down at a special election.
"It's going to be in the hands of the people now," he said. "It's up to them whether or not it moves forward."
Mayor Richard J. Alcombright expressed his disappointment in the petition and his continued support of the Conte project Tuesday in a prepared statement.
"While I am fully supportive of this process as allowed under the city charter, I first and foremost want to stress the importance and time-sensitive nature of this project and its relevance to our school system and city," he said. "I would also like all residents to understand that the city will be reimbursed at the rate of 80 percent by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). While the borrowing will be for $29.7 million, the final cost to the city will be approximately $6.5 million. This will be paid for without the need for tax override or debt exclusion, as is the case in many other communities."
But what ramifications a vote against the borrowing order could have in the future isn't crystal clear.
Daniel Collins, spokesman for the MSBA, said Tuesday that having an approved borrowing order rescinded by a citizens' petition was "unfamiliar territory."
"Typically, when funding is approved it happens prior to project gaining local approval," he said. "I spoke with our legal department and as they see it, this project does have local approval. If the citizens' petition goes to the ballot and it [fails to gain approval with a yes vote], our legal department would need to evaluate how to proceed. They said it could be seen as a ‘failed vote' and would fall under or ‘failed vote policy' guidelines, or it could be that we would need to find some other way to engage with the district and to proceed to the next step. However, that solution would most likely be very similar to the failed vote policy concept."
According to the MSBA's failed vote policy, if a city, town or regional school district fails to approve funding for a proposed project within the 120-day deadline, then within 10 business days of the vote, it must submit to the MSBA a plan that presents the vote results and reasons for the failed vote and also a plan and timeline to remedy the failed vote.
"The MSBA will review the plan and determine whether it can continue to set aside MSBA funds for the proposed project," the policy states. "However, a failed local vote likely will result in the school district being required to submit a new ‘Statement of Interest' to the MSBA and await an invitation from the MSBA to enter the eligibility period phase."
According to Collins, the MSBA received an average of 227 statements of interest per year from 2009 through 2012. The total number of statements of interest each year includes both new statements and old ones that were renewed within the system from previous years.