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Debt Exclusion Vote Stalled by Technicality

October 5, 2018

Saturday’s referendum for athletic fields for the Ayer Shirley Regional School District is still on, but it won’t be a double-header.

The towns’ separate Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion questions, asking voters to cover each town’s share of the $7.1 million cost, cannot go forward due to a technical snafu. That leaves voters on Saturday to decide on a single question, from the school district, on whether to approve the project.

The problem surfaced on Monday night, when Shirley selectmen learned they had not called the election within the state’s legal window.

Selectmen set the date and signed the warrant on Sept. 10. Resident Tim Hatch had told the board that was several days short of the required 35-day waiting period under state law.

So on Monday, Shirley selectmen voted to cancel the question. At their meeting Tuesday night, Ayer selectmen followed Shirley’s lead.

The state requires the 35-day hold to ensure adequate time to alert all voters of the coming election, for absentee ballots to be processed and to allow the town clerk time to organize the election, according to Town Counsel Lauren Goldberg of K&P Law, who explained the situation and laid out next step choices for the Shirley selectmen.

One option would be to go ahead with the election and “hope for the best,” she said, following procedural guidelines she sketched out.

Noting that although the town’s intent was clear -- to hold the election in tandem with the ASRSD election and under the same procedural umbrella -- Goldberg said there’s no guarantee lawmakers would agree with that premise if there’s a legal challenge.

If the debt exclusion measure passed on Oct. 6, the town might need to request special legislation “to ratify the vote,” she told the board.

Chairman Debra Flagg was leery of that risk. “Let’s just do it right,” she said.

Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee Chairman Jonathan Deforge said his board had voted on Aug. 15 to push forward with the October referendum, well outside the 35-day limit.

Goldberg said the only other option was to cancel the election, await the outcome of the school district vote and a subsequent vote at the Oct. 15 Special Town Meeting and proceed from there.

But even if a majority of voters in the district say yes on Saturday, the project won’t start rolling right away, with the town on the hook for its share of the cost

The School Committee has promised not to borrow for the fields project unless Town Meeting voters back it and debt exclusions pass in both towns. Deforge said that commitment still stands.

With some absentee ballots already in, Goldberg said voters would be notified and the problem explained. District ballots would be tallied. Town ballots would be set aside, locked away for a specified time, then destroyed. New absentee ballots on the debt exclusion question can be submitted if and when a new town election date is set.

On Wednesday morning, Ayer Assistant Town Manager Carly Antonellis said there will be follow up there as well, with a project-related article placed on the Oct. 22 Special Town Meeting warrant and another election if the district vote is yes.

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday for a single question approving in principle a $7.1 million fields project for the Ayer Shirley Regional School District.

Ayer: Vote at Town Hall

Shirley: Vote at Town Offices

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