NORTH ADAMS -- Approval of a $29.7 million bond order for a renovation and addition to turn the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School into an elementary school will now be decided by the city's registered voters on April 30.
The City Council voted unanimously against an order, generated by a citizens' petition, that would have rescinded its Feb. 3 approval of the $29.7 million bond. Although the borrowing order is for $29.7 million, the city's share would be $6.7 million, with about $23 million being paid for by the state School Building Authority (MSBA).
While the council voted 8 to 0 against the order, with Councilor Alan Marden being absent, it took nearly an hour of discussion and the arrival of City Solicitor John DeRosa to push the council to vote on the issue. Prior to DeRosa's arrival at City Hall, the council had unanimously voted to file the order rescinding the vote.
"It is my recommendation that you vote on the order," DeRosa said. "When the citizens' petition was filed on Feb. 28 with some 1,300 odd signatures that were certified, the statutory requirement was that your original [borrowing] order was stayed (suspended). "
Councilor Keith Bona, who originally made the motion to file the order to rescind the bond, questioned whether or not filing the order was the same as voting against it.
"Some of us don't even want to vote on it," he said.
DeRosa suggested the council vote on the matter, stating
"I think that [filing the order] is not the most prudent approach at this point," he said. "The statute is clear that if you vote in favor of it, it is the end of the paper and the borrowing order. If you vote against it, then it goes to a special election and the council must set a date, based on certain parameters."
Councilor Jennifer Breen stated that she was "morally" opposed to voting on the issue, but had not know previously that the citizens' petition had suspended the borrowing order.
"I'm opposed to the idea that a citizens' petition can force us to vote on something we've already approved," she said. "I also think the petition was deceiving in the way it was presented to the public. I think it's crazy that we would throw away $23 million in money from the state for this project. I think people need to be aware that the city's share is just over $6 million and know what they are voting for when they go to vote."
Councilor John Barrett III said he believes the public has a right to vote on the issue and that there will be plenty of time for voter education.
"Whether we agree with it or not, we had a diverse group of citizens who took the time to go out and collect 1,800 signatures for this petition," he said.
The council voted unanimously to set the date for the special election on April 30, the same day as the special state primary for U.S. Senate.
"There will be two ballots, but by holding the special election on the same date as the special state primary election, we'll save the city $6,000," Council President Michael Bloom said prior to the vote to set the special election date.
But what ramifications a public vote against the borrowing order could have in the future aren't clear.
In a previous interview with the Transcript, Daniel Collins, spokesman for the MSBA, said that having an approved borrowing order rescinded by a citizens' petition, after it received approval, was "unfamiliar territory."
"I spoke with our legal department and as they see it, this project does have local approval," he said.
Should the bond fail to receive approval at the special election, Collins said the MSBA's legal department would need to determine how it would proceed in regards to the Conte project, but most likely it would be treated as a "failed vote." According to the MSBA's policy, "a failed local vote will most likely result in the school district being required to submit a new ‘Statement of Interest' to the MSBA and await an invitation to enter the eligibility period phase."
According to Collins, the MSBA receives an average of 227 statements of interest a year from 2009 through 2012.