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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Lawsuit filed against Billerica Select Board in response to rejected town center petition

BILLERICA — A lawsuit was filed against the Billerica Select Board Monday in response to the board’s Oct. 26 vote to reject a petition that would have triggered a townwide vote on the controversial town center project.

Attorney Roland Milliard, with Billerica resident Dina Favreau as the case’s plaintiff, filed an injunction in Middlesex Superior Court Monday seeking to block Billerica from moving forward in securing $15 million in bonds for the $20 million project. Milliard also filed a writ of mandamus to compel the Select Board to vote to set a special election date for the town center project. A hearing for the injunction is scheduled for Nov. 27 in Middlesex Superior Court room 16 at 2 p.m.

“All I know is that I looked at the town charter, and the town charter is silent on what the petition has to say,” said Milliard in a Nov. 20 phone call shortly after filing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes after the town center project was narrowly approved at the annual fall Town Meeting Oct. 3, needing a two-thirds majority and passing in a 126-61 vote. Within a week, former Select Board member George Simolaris started a petition to bring that warrant article to a direct townwide vote, as Billerica voters are allowed to do and as Simolaris successfully did in a similar case in 2012, which resulted in voters overwhelmingly rejecting that version of that town center project.

The petition campaign collected more than enough signatures, with Town Clerk Donna McCoy saying that they stopped counting at 2,299, much more than the 1,549 that were required. When the petition was brought to the Select Board Oct. 26, many believed that the board would set a date for the special election as the petition asked, but were shocked when the board voted 3-2 to reject the petition altogether. Simolaris had estimated that more than 3,000 people had signed it.

Milliard argues that the board had no right to make a judgment on the merits of the petition at all, and should only have voted to set a date for the special election.

“If the voters want to vote on something, it is incumbent on the town to let them vote on it,” said Milliard.

Select Board members Andrew Deslaurier, Kim Conway and Chair Michael Riley voted to reject the petition on the grounds that it was worded incorrectly, with board members Michael Rosa and John Burrows voting to support it. The three who voted to reject it each argued that it was worded in such a way that it is suggested that Town Meeting members voted to send the matter directly to the voters, when Town Meeting simply voted to provide funding for the town center project.

The petition reads, “Petition to amend the action of the Representative Town Meeting, it voted to approve Article 14 of the Fall 2023 Town Warrant to the Billerica voters at large in order for final determination as to funding the New Town Center Plan.”

Milliard argued that the exact wording of the petition is not important, so long as the Town Meeting article is included in the text of the ballot measure with the exact wording it was presented with during Town Meeting.

“Any question submitted to the voters must be on the ballot in substantially the same way as what was presented by the moderator at Town Meeting,” said Milliard. “There is nothing in the town charter permitting the Select Board to pass judgment on the sufficiency of that petition.”

Riley and Town Manager John Curran, a chief proponent of the town center project, declined to comment on the lawsuit shortly after it was filed Monday afternoon, with both saying they were just learning of it and hadn’t been able to see it for themselves yet.

Favreau, who serves as a Town Meeting representative for Precinct 11, said in a statement via email Nov. 20 that she voted in favor of the town center project on the Town Meeting floor, but supports the right of Billerica voters to petition their government.

“I believe the majority of the Select Board committed an injustice with their intentional overreach, and as such, I must vociferously dissent,” wrote Favreau. “The narrative has been that the people behind the referendum are just ‘the loud few’ that are ‘always against change.’ That narrative is simply not true. I voted in favor, but I absolutely support the People’s right to petition their government. There are many of us who voted in favor that feel this way.”

Favreau said the Select Board’s vote goes beyond just the redesign of Billerica’s town center, and now is a question of the law.

“The People’s right to referenda is rooted in parliamentary law dating back to the Revolutionary John Adams, and is codified by the Massachusetts Constitution,” stated Favreau. “As a town so rich in history linked to the Revolutionary War, where we celebrate the Billerica Colonial Minutemen at Yankee Doodle, you would be right to think that something like this should never actually happen here.

“Win or lose, we’ll have the legal answer that we need as a community; and with it the ability to move forward with integrity and dignity in knowing that we stood on the right side of history today, because we stood for Democracy and the rule of law,” Favreau said later in the statement. “As a reminder to the current leadership in Billerica, you cannot simply ignore over 3,000 residents and have it go unanswered.”

Simolaris, who announced Nov. 6 that he would run for Deslaurier’s seat on the Select Board in the election this coming spring, said in a Nov. 20 phone call after learning that the lawsuit was filed that the situation has been “a tough pill to swallow.” He said he feels “wounded” by the board’s rejection of his petition.

“I feel wounded as an American, and I feel wounded as a person who has always known that democracy is not perfect, but I never thought it would take a turn this bad,” said Simolaris. “If you can’t even have democracy in your own town, no wonder voter turnouts are so low. A lot of young people cared to find this petition and sign it. This was an opportunity to reinvigorate and get more young people involved.”

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