Oak Bluffs election bungled, town officials to talk Monday

Oak Bluffs officials did not follow the proper notification procedures prior to a special town election held last Thursday, May 26 seeking voter approval of two Proposition 2.5 override questions. In the aftermath of the botched election in which voters said no twice, town leaders said they would work to avoid future repeats.

Kathy Burton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, has called a special meeting of selectmen on Monday, June 6, to hear from all town officials involved in the election procedures.

“It appears that we did not properly post a signed warrant seven days in advance, and that’s what we should have done,” Ms. Burton said in a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday. “We’ll sort it out, get together, set up a procedure, and a policy. It’s helpful when we all sit together and communicate.”

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

Voters rejected the second question 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.

Ms. Burton said after consulting with town counsel Ron Rappaport, and considering that voters defeated the override questions by substantial margins, the town will not take steps to certify the election.

“Because they didn’t pass, we do not have to petition the legislature to ratify the election results,” Ms. Burton said. “If they had passed, we would have had to do that.”

Not my job

At the poll last Thursday, town clerk Deborah Ratcliff said the board of selectmen, not the town clerk, is responsible for properly posting the election warrant.

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

In a phone conversation with The Times on Tuesday, Ms. Ratcliff said it is her routine to ask for the original warrant from the selectmen’s office the day before an election or town meeting.

According to town email records, Ms. Ratcliffe first asked for the properly signed warrant in an e-mail to town administrator Michael Dutton, sent at 3:28 pm, the afternoon before the election.

“I need to have the election warrant to take to the polls tomorrow,” Ms. Ratcliff wrote in the email. “Please send it down to me asap. A couple of years ago we did not have a warrant at a STE (special town election) and a voter was very disruptive when we were unable to show it to him.”

On the morning of the election, in response to that email, a town hall staff member brought Ms. Ratcliff a copy of the warrant. It was not signed by selectmen, and had no certification that a constable had properly posted it in public places as required by state law.

At 11:43 am Thursday, the day of the election, Ms. Ratcliff emailed Mr. Dutton again.

“I need the actual posted warrant, the original with signatures of the selectmen and the constable reflecting that it was actually properly posted 7 days ago,” Ms. Ratcliff wrote.

Mr. Dutton said he was busy with other town business on the afternoon of the election, and did not see the second e-mail until after the polls closed.

Timing is everything

Selectmen scheduled the override election 44 days after the annual town meeting, and 42 days after the municipal elections for town offices. State law is clear on the matter of elections held apart from town meetings. The dividing line is 35 days, according to the law.

“The time and place of holding such election…may be stated in one warrant for the annual town meeting if called within thirty-five days of each other and such election and vote shall be deemed parts of the annual town meeting. If the election and other matters to be determined upon by ballot…are more than thirty-five days apart, separate warrants shall be used,” according to Massachusetts General law, chapter 39, section 9a.

The only exception is when a town passes a special law or charter governing elections. In Oak Bluffs, a town bylaw covers advance posting for town meetings, but there is no specific bylaw governing town elections.

The town did advertise and post all the proper details of the special election prior to the April 12 annual town meeting, Mr. Dutton said.

“We have operated for a long time on the assumption that the election warrant is part of the town meeting warrant,” Mr. Dutton said. “That’s what I was operating under, and it appears that’s not the case.”

Who does what?

In other Island towns, town clerks take responsibility for election procedures. In Edgartown for example, town clerk Wanda Williams receives the election warrant as soon as completed by the board of selectmen, arranges with a constable for copies to be posted in public places, consults the Secretary of State’s election division if there are questions, and insures deadlines are met.

In Chilmark, responsibilities for election procedures are divided between selectmen and the town clerk. Executive director Tim Carroll relies on the clerk for overall responsibility to meet election law deadlines.

Ms. Burton wants to clarify the responsibilities of Oak Bluffs town officials at Monday’s special selectmen’s meeting.

“It may have been helpful to have some warning, but I’m not sure she (Ms. Ratcliff) realized that things weren’t properly posted until the day of election,” Ms. Burton said. “Maybe she thought someone else was doing it, that’s why it’s good to sit down together and talk about it.”

“It’s probably incumbent on both our offices to get together and come up with a consistent timeline on how we carry out our responsibilities,” Mr. Dutton said. “I do rely on Deborah for guidance, and she relies on my office for notices.”

Voter outrage

Outside the poll Thursday, several voters questioned whether the election was properly posted, and commented on the lack of publicity leading up to the vote.

Beverly Burke, an Oak Bluffs voter, contacted The Times to register her displeasure.

“This was very quietly done,” Ms. Burke said. “You would think it was to pull the wool over our eyes. Frankly I’m outraged. I would have been willing to think about it, (the override) but I was so mad I voted no.

“We’re talking about a half-million dollars here. It’s not a small thing, people should have been thoroughly warned and educated. It makes it really look like they were trying to sneak it by,” she said.

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 election.