Oak Bluffs says no to overrides, clerk questions election


Oak Bluffs voters defeated two Proposition 2.5 ballot questions by wide margins Thursday. The election outcome raised financial and procedural questions for the beleaguered town.

Even before the polls closed Thursday evening, town clerk Deborah Ratcliff questioned whether the town followed proper procedures in posting notice of the election and whether it is valid.

By 376-182, voters defeated a request for $230,000 to renew the town’s regular road maintenance and paving programs.

Voters rejected, 387 to 170, a combination of 15 separate requests for appropriations, including $75,000 to hire a finance director.

A total of 559 voters, or 16.6 percent of 3,359 registered, voted.

Not her job

Today’s election took many voters by surprise, in part because it followed the annual spring town meeting by six weeks.

As voters stood outside the polls at the Oak Bluffs Library, they commented about what several voters described as an improperly posted election. Asked about the brewing controversy, Ms. Ratcliff told The Times she had not received a warrant properly signed by selectmen, with certification that town constables had properly posted notice of the election seven days before the vote, as required by state law.

“It doesn’t appear to me to be properly posted,” Ms. Ratcliff said shortly before the polls closed at 7 pm.

Asked why she had not taken steps before the election to correct the procedures, Ms. Ratcliff said the selectmen are responsible for posting notices of special elections. She said she did not alert town officials there could be problems.

“It’s not my job to post it,” Ms. Ratcliff said. “I wasn’t looking to see whether it was posted. It’s not my responsibility.”

Reached at his home after the polls closed, town administrator Michael Dutton said he believes the election was properly posted.

“The date and the time of the election was in the newspaper, notices were posted at the post office and on the web site, back at the time of town meeting,” Mr. Dutton said. He said the town has satisfied the requirements of the election law.

“I rely on Deborah, when it comes to elections certainly,” Mr. Dutton said. “I’ll have to look into it and see what the issue is.”

Back to the drawing board

The override requests totaled $484,361. Had they been approved, the extra spending would have increased the average tax bill by $97 annually. An override would have also permanently increased the town’s tax levy limit, which has a compounding effect on tax bills in future years.

“The town said, ‘we don’t care,’ figure it out,” said newly elected selectman Walter Vail, the only selectman on hand to hear the results after the poll closed. “We go back to the drawing board. I supported the override for one reason. I want a town accountant. It’s something I’ve been talking about since the election.”

Timing is everything

In most years, override questions are added to the town’s election ballot, customarily voted two days after the beginning of town meeting in April. But in March, selectmen settled instead on a strategy of delaying the override election, to educate voters about how the decisions on the override questions would affect town services and tax bills.

However, other than cursory discussion at the May 9 selectmen’s meeting and a brief announcement at Tuesday’s meeting, the selectmen and their finance and advisory committee did little to make a case for more spending. There was little advance publicity or discussion.

The town ran into similar difficulties in another unusually timed Proposition 2.5 override ballot in 2008. Town officials determined that the election was not properly posted. They petitioned the state legislature to declare the election valid. After public hearings, state lawmakers decided the lack of public notice did not materially affect the election results and approved the legislation.