Oak Bluffs override vote now in doubt
The results of the May 28 Proposition 2.5 override election in Oak Bluffs were called into doubt this week by voters who questioned whether the warrant for the election was posted according to state law.
On the advice of their legal counsel, town officials are now working with state representative Eric Turkington to shepherd a bill through the state legislature that would declare the election results valid, despite the failure to properly notify voters.
The unusual timing of the election contributed to the oversight, according to town administrator Michael Dutton. In most cases, override questions are added to the general election ballot, and scheduled a few days following the annual town meeting. This year, selectmen waited to see the results of the town meeting votes on the Proposition 2.5 questions, before scheduling the special override election.
"Our elections have always piggy-backed on the elections for selectmen," said Mr. Dutton. "This was a special election, given the very difficult budget we've had. We assumed the postings that were done for the town meeting took care of it, but they didn't. We're a small town. Despite what a lot of people may think, we don't have a lot of employees that are well versed in election law. When it falls outside the routine, we should really be careful and make sure we take care of the details."
"I'm not going to point any fingers," said Ron DiOrio, chairman of the board of selectmen. "We wound up going through four nights of a very difficult town meeting. Things happen, you move on." He said selectmen will talk about the error and assign clear responsibilities to avoid a similar problem in the future.
The election glitch was the subject of a short discussion at Tuesday's selectmen's meeting. Selectmen Kerry Scott said she had received a lot of comments on the election, even as voters were going to the polls.
"I had three when I was sitting at the polls in the last half hour of voting, and two the day before." said Ms. Scott. "People called me from the post office and asked me if I was aware that the ballot wasn't posted. I want to make sure that everyone knows that it wasn't the town clerk's office that didn't get this done. I take full responsibility as a selectman that this didn't get done and it was through our offices that needed it to get done."
Selectmen unanimously endorsed the plan to seek legislative action to declare the election valid.
There is precedent for a legislative remedy to correct this kind of oversight, according to town clerk Deborah Ratcliff. Similar legislation was enacted in 2000, when the town missed, by a couple of a days, a deadline for posting a warrant.
Rep. Turkington will ask Governor Deval Patrick to sponsor the legislation.
"It takes a majority vote in both houses," said Rep. Turkington. "I'd like to think we could do it before the end of the fiscal year. That's three weeks. That's probably wishful thinking, but within two months, I think is realistic."
Mr. Turkington said the bill, like any other legislation, will require public hearings. He said if anyone can make a case that failure to properly post the warrant affected the election, the public hearing is the place to sway the opinion of state legislators. "The issue is not the results of the election, but how significant was the procedural defect," he said.
In the May 28 special election, voters approved two override questions that would raise tax rates to fund increases in school spending, and rejected another to fund salaries for life guards. They also approved a debt exclusion question to pay bonds that funded capital projects, and rejected two others. The votes were close. One of the school funding override questions passed by just 19 votes, the other by 61 votes.
A total of 777 people voted on the override questions, or 26 percent of the 3,019 registered Oak Bluffs voters. Because special elections are rare, it is difficult to compare the turnout to other special elections. By contrast, 885 voters, or 29 percent of the registered voters, turned out for the general election on April 10, which featured a hotly contested three-way race for two selectmen's seats.
Massachusetts general laws require the posting of a warrant for town meetings and elections at least seven days before the event. The responsibility for posting the warrant lies with the board of selectmen. Oak Bluffs bylaws require posting of a warrant for town meetings 14 days before the meeting, and stipulate that the warrant must be posted in two conspicuous places in town, as well as published in a local newspaper. The town bylaws do not specifically mandate similar notification for a special election.