By Marjorie Nesin
---- — GLOUCESTER — When Amanda Kesterson, a Gloucester mother of three, began collecting signatures on her petition for a hearing on adding armed security guards to Gloucester’s schools, she wanted to make sure city councilors would hear those individuals who signed on.
So she collected 240 signatures, mostly by email and through social networking.
But, city officials are calling those so-called electronic signatures inadequate, saying the city only accepts handwritten signatures. The city’s General Council Suzanne P. Egan cited the Secretary of State’s election division that requires handwritten signatures, saying Gloucester follows those guidelines.
Gloucester’s law on petitions makes no mention of the words “electronic signatures.”
“I would recommend that the city follow the same procedures that the Secretary of State’s Election Division follows,” Egan said.
Plus, Egan said, if the city were to begin accepting electronic signatures as valid, city officials would need to create a set of guidelines for verifying the new signature type.
Because the city could not accept the petition as is, Kesterson submitted the petition to discuss adding an armed security guard to each of Gloucester’s schools with one hand-written signature — her own ‚ and has begun gathering other handwritten signatures.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of people that agree with me,” Kesterson said. “It’s unfortunate that their signatures weren’t accepted when they wanted to be on that petition.”
According to the city’s charter, the City Council is required to hold a public hearing on a topic if 150 voters petition for that hearing. But, if even one voter signs a petition, that petition for a hearing gets passed along to the city council, and the council can decide on whether to hold a hearing.
Kesterson, along with her employer Orlando & Associates, a Gloucester law firm, sent a memorandum of law to the city Monday, pointing to a state law that allows electronic signatures on business and commerce transactions. Egan, however, countered saying that particular law exists for commercial entities only.
Kesterson and attorneys Joseph . and Joseph O. Orlando say the law should steer the city’s direction on the acceptance of electronic signatures.
“While the legislative intent may have originally been to regulate electronic transactions between private citizens for business and commerce, the statute does not contain a subsection exempting local or state government from the legal analysis contained therein,” the Orlandos wrote. “The local ordinance does not specify whether the petition should be signed via pen and paper, signed electronically, or any other specification.”
City Clerk Linda Lowe has forwarded to city councilors Kesterson’s individual petition for a hearing with an attached list of the electronic signatures, at Kesterson’s request, but those names are included solely as a list of names, not to be counted as verified signatures. For now, it is up to city councilors to decide when they receive the individually signed petition at a Feb. 12 meeting, whether to hold a public hearing on the issue.
Kesterson said she hopes that, despite the council not facing a hearing requirement, its members will see the list of names and understand that those people wished to sign on and be acknowledged and heard.
“In the end, regardless of the validity of the signatures and that issue,” Kesterson said, “hundreds of people agree that we need to address a problem in our city and the city council. And the School Committee should be saying ‘Wow hundreds of people feel this way. We should do something. We should listen.’”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.