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UPDATED: Box ballots too few to match election results

Details of Town Admin contract included; Special Election set for April 27 after two select board members resign
By Daniel Dunkle | Mar 05, 2021
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle History is made as the ballot box is opened March 4 at the Hope Town Office. Pictured, from left, are Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith, Town Clerk Robert Menas, Interim Town Clerk David Herrick, and Langley Willauer.

Hope — For months residents and town leaders have debated the outcome of the July 14 election and pondered what information the sealed box of ballots might contain. The famous box was finally opened Thursday, March 4, at the Hope Town Office, but the contents may raise more questions than answers.

About 15 residents gathered to watch Interim Town Clerk David Herrick and incoming Town Clerk Robert Menas open the box containing the ballots in which residents decided their town meeting business in 2020. Due to the pandemic, the election had to be by secret ballot.

The clerks copied the tally sheets from the election counters from July 14, 2020, and they counted the total number of ballots contained in the box, which came to 481.

That total number is as many as 67 lower than the official election results for some of the questions on the ballot.

The official results released earlier this year for question four was 548 when yes, no and blank votes were added together.

Most of the totals released to the public in 2020 are around 500 votes for the the 25 questions on the town meeting ballot. But the totals fluctuate from a low of 463 to a high of 548.

Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith said at the ballot box opening that some of the ballots may have been counted twice.

The election for July 14 was run by Town Administrator Samantha Mank and former Registrar of Voters Langley Willauer, with help from other volunteer counters.

The work continued into the night on the date of the election until after 3 a.m., at which point Mank and the others locked the ballots that still were not all counted in the vault and left for the night. They returned the following day and continued the counting.

Some of the volunteers did not return the next day because they had to go to their jobs, so different counters came in, according to statements made during the meeting.

Several questions were raised about the process. Did the town do enough to seek volunteers needed for the project?

Ballot counters also said people from out of town were allowed to participate in the counting, including Mank’s daughter.

Smith said this was allowed under Gov. Janet Mills’ rules on the pandemic elections. In addition, she said this was why there were not always representatives from both Democrats and Republicans present.

Willauer attended the event and questioned why the box was not completely sealed.

Mank said Wendy Pelletier had started to open it while helping at the town office at one point and then staff had told her not to open the box.

“I was expecting a sealed box,” Willauer said.

Herrick said he did not see any indication of fraud or irregularities.

He also said what he found in the box was not what he had expected. There was discussion about why the ballots were not all organized in groups of 50 with tally sheets for each group as is the standard practice.

Smith said the town should be looking toward the future. She said the November election went flawlessly. For July 14, she blamed a combination of the pandemic complications, inexperience of the people running the election for the town, and the fact that shortly before the election tragedy involving loved ones affected town employees.

Following the ballot box opening the Select Board held a meeting. The primary purpose of the meeting is to complete an evaluation for Mank and prepare to sign a contract.

Select Board Member Bruce Haffner was not allowed to go into the closed-door session concerning Mank, which he objected to.

The board came out of the closed-door meeting and voted 3-1 to sign a contract with Mank.

"The Town Administrator’s contract is an auto-renewing approximately 2-year contract beginning March 4, 2021, until January 31, 2023," Mank said in an email Friday. "The base salary went from $57,200 to $60,000 annually, which is an approx 4.9% increase."

Haffner opposed the motion. He said there were six missing tally sheets and the information from the ballot box does not match the warrant vote totals.

"This is a botched election!" he said.

Willauer commented as well, saying the town was about to sign a contract with the person responsible for the election. He said the ballot box opening showed that the groups of 50 ballots that had been organized by the counters had been scrambled. One of the stacks had 127 ballots and one had six, he said.

"Look at what just happened," he said.

Haffner referred to the report produced by a lawyer for the town about personnel issues related to Mank, which the Select Board has not released as it is confidential. He also talked about the ballot box issue.

Smith said she was not going to talk about the ballot box or the lawyer report. Haffner retorted that nothing relevant would be discussed. The exchange between the two became heated.

Prior to that, the board accepted the resignation of Select Board Member Thomas Ingraham, which with the concurrent resignation of Amy Gertner from the board, brings the town down to three Select Board members.

Of the remaining three, Haffner is the subject of a recall effort. Residents will vote in June whether to remove him from the board over his disputes with the rest of the board and Mank, concerning the snowplowing and roads budgets.

Smith said in order to vote to pay the town’s bills, they need a majority vote not of the three remaining, but of the five total seats. That means the three Select Board members would have to be consistently able to attend meetings and vote unanimously.

They voted to hold a special election April 27 to fill vacancies. Nomination papers for all seats will be due by April 9 at the town office.

The moment of truth. Robert Menas and David Herrick open the ballot box from the July 14 election. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The ballots begin to come out. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Robert Menas and David Herrick count ballots March 4 in the Hope Town Office. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The town released documents from the ballot box and the count. This one shows the total number of ballots found in the box.
The vote totals reported for the July 14 questions.
Documents from the tally sheets found in the ballot box.
Documents found in the ballot box tally sheets.
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Comments (3)
Posted by: Paul Smith | Mar 05, 2021 10:41

I wrote to Mr. Dunkle this morning, March 5,  to ask him to clarify two points in this article, which might cause some to misunderstand things.  He declined, but suggested I write a comment or letter to the editor.  Here is what I wrote to him:

A couple clarifications on your article which stated:
"Select Board Member Bruce Haffner was not allowed to go into the closed-door session concerning Mank, which he objected to."

SB Member Bruce Haffner recused himself at the beginning of the inquiry process because his threats to Ms. Mank in the summer of 2020 caused him to be biased.  As Town Attorney Bill Kelly explained it, when a judge has a conflict of interest, the judge must recuse him/herself from a case.  Similarly, any SB member who cannot be unbiased in their review must either recuse themselves from personnel deliberations regarding the employee or face having the other members of the Select Board conduct a public vote to remove that individual from the review process.  Mr. Haffner recused himself, therefore he could not go into the Executive Session for Samantha's Annual Performance Review.  As well, contracts are confidential matters discussed only in Executive Session and cannot be made public until they are approved and signed.  At that point, as you know Dan, the contract is public.
Also, your article which stated:
Smith said she was not going to talk about the ballot box or the lawyer report.

In fact I said we were not going to talk about the ballot box or lawyer report at last night's meeting because it was not on the agenda.  We were only going to discuss the items that were on the agenda. Discussions such as the one Mr. Haffner wanted to have last night (there is an exception for emergencies, which this was not) must be included on a SB Meeting agenda, which must be published in advance of the meeting where it is to be discussed so that members of the Town and the public can have time to become aware of the discussion.  I have asked that we add such a discussion to the agenda at the upcoming regular Select Board meeting on 9th.

End of my letter to Mr. Dunkle.

Laws governing town government are complex, and are designed to preserve transparency, integrity of the process, and allow citizen participation.  In all we do in the Town of Hope, we are diligent in obeying both the letter and spirit of the law.

Finally, I would not that perhaps the most important statement of the day was deep down into the middle of the article: Interim Town Clerk David Herrick, who has a career as a Town Clerk and/or at the head of a town office, said

"Herrick said he did not see any indication of fraud or irregularities."

Thank you.

Sarah Ann Smith

Chair, Hope Select Board

Posted by: Paul Smith | Mar 05, 2021 10:35

Mr. Kibitz:  it is against the law to recount ballots without a court order.  The process to do that would cost tens of thousands of dollars and a judge would not necessarily find grounds to permit it, even if that option were pursued.

Sarah Ann Smith, Chair, Hope Select Board

Posted by: Gregory D Kibitz | Mar 05, 2021 10:01

You have the official written ballots. Recount them. If double counting happened & was random, few final results should change. Figure out what to do about the others.

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