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UPDATED - Hope deals with election errors, fired employee, complaints from public

By Daniel Dunkle | Aug 25, 2020

Hope — Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith found herself in the hot seat Tuesday night, Aug. 25, as more than 30 residents tuned in on Zoom to hear how the town plans to deal with problems in the vote count from the July 14 election as well as the recent firing of the town's bookkeeper by Town Administrator Samantha Mank.

Smith said the issues in the community had led to "rancor, concern and divisiveness."

At the beginning of the meeting she read a statement from the Select Board to the people of Hope explaining that in the July 14 election some errors occurred in the tallying of the votes.

"The only items which were questioned were the 25 articles on the Annual Town Meeting Referendum ballot," she said.

It did not affect the state and federal ballots.

The town will not redo the town meeting votes, however. She said legally speaking, those vote tallies are final.

Smith said town leaders were distressed by the errors and she apologized to the townspeople.

The problem may have resulted from factors including the fact that the town printed the ballots itself, staff members were working into the early hours of the morning during the election, and due to turnover in the town office, the staff members were not experienced. In addition, these new staff members did not have time to receive proper training for the election before the town had to shut down due to the pandemic.

Normally the town would vote on the 25 affected articles in a classic New England town meeting, but due to the pandemic, the town had to change this process to a secret ballot.

Smith said guidance from the state about the election was late in arriving and printers could not handle the demand of all of the towns across the state trying to get their ballots printed.

She said the good news is that prior to the November election, the town clerk would have a chance to attend training in September.

Recounting the ballots, however, is a problem, because according to the town's attorney, Maine Municipal Association and Secretary of State's Office, a recount can only be triggered for specific reasons and by a deadline of five or 30 days, depending on the circumstances, both of which have passed.

She said the select board regrets this situation and will share more information as soon as the law allows.

Neighboring Appleton is dealing with a similar issue with a reported miscount in its select board race in the same election, though the issue does not seem to have caused as much turmoil there.

In fact, the voting issue is only one of the hotly contentious issues faced by Hope town leaders.

According to documents provided in support of the meeting agenda, Town Administrator Samantha Mank fired bookkeeper Langley Willauer on Aug. 7. He submitted a lengthy written statement about the situation to the select board at its Aug. 11 meeting, accusing Mank of dishonesty; of failing to send postcards to the townspeople prior to the election in a timely manner; election wrongdoing; and he leveled numerous complaints about her conduct.

Both Mank and Willauer wear multiple hats in the town. Willauer is also Planning Board chair and Mank is code enforcement officer.

Willauer was employed as bookkeeper, Registrar of Voters, Deputy Town Clerk, and Deputy Tax Collector from Feb. 28 to Aug. 7 of this year. He was still in his probationary period as an employee and he addressed this in his statement.

“...While I believe there can sometimes be a place for policies such as a six-month probationary period, I do NOT believe that such a policy was ever intended to be, nor should the Town of Hope ever allow, such a policy to be utilized for the abuse of power and the covering up of misdeeds as have, it is my belief, been perpetrated by Samantha Mank on the citizens of Hope," he said Aug. 11.

Reached by phone Aug. 26, Willauer said he had no comment.

Mank said Aug. 26 that she cannot make a comment at this time because this is a personnel issue.

In the wake of these issues, Select Board members and town officials are fielding numerous requests for public documents. Some residents in the meeting Aug. 25 raised concerns about closed-door meetings and called on the board to be more transparent. There was also discussion about an investigation, and one resident said the town should consider putting a mechanism in place to recall Select Board members.

Smith noted the board is limited on what information it can give out because these are personnel matters. The board has been meeting with the town attorney.

"This is killing me," Smith said of the fact that she cannot share more information with the people, adding she likes to keep the town's business out in public.

The following is the complete text of the select board's statement to the citizens of Hope

Statement from The Select Board to the Citizens of the Town of Hope

August 25, 2020

The Select Board for the Town of Hope and the Town Office staff want to assure the citizens of Hope that we take town elections seriously and that they are conducted in accordance with law and regulation. It does appear, however, that some errors occurred in the last election. However, any error is unacceptable. We apologize and have already begun taking steps to ensure this does not happen again.

On August 11, a citizen of the Town of Hope raised concerns about the tabulation of the Annual Town Meeting Referendum Ballots in the July 14th Election, noting the total of Yes, No and Blank tallies added up to different numbers when, in fact, there should have been a consistent total for the total number of ballots. The concerns raised are ONLY about Annual Town Meeting Referendum Ballots that were manually tabulated on July 14 (election day) and July 15. The state and federal ballots were properly processed through the machine and, if the ballot would not feed or scan into the machine correctly, as otherwise stipulated by law and regulation.

The Select Board and Town Staff are distressed at these errors, and again we apologize and are taking corrective action. The Town of Hope is working to address several other issues appropriately.

Some background may prove useful:

Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the Town was unable to hold the annual in-person Town Meeting, which is where the citizens of the town serve as the town’s legislature and vote on the Town Warrants to fund all town functions for the coming fiscal year. As a result, the Town placed all the usual Town and School warrants on a secret ballot, as well as elections for Municipal positions: two Select Board Members, two Budget Committee positions, the Road Commissioner, and the school board.

Guidance from Augusta to the cities and towns of Maine was late in arriving about how to proceed with secret paper ballots for the July 14 election. This meant the printers that print our ballots could not handle printing demands for the many towns across the state and have them ready in time for the date to begin mailing out absentee ballots. Therefore, towns across the state ended up printing their own ballots, just as we did.

Hope’s Annual Town Meeting Referendum, a 6-page ballot printed on legal size manila colored paper, listed all the items that would normally have been discussed at an in-person town meeting. There were twenty-five separate Articles presented to the voters. If you multiply 25 articles by the (approximately) 500 ballots, that is 12,500 separate items that needed to be counted and tallied manually. Then add the municipal elected positions and the school warrants. Clearly, that is a daunting task.

Hope’s challenges in the July 14 election did not begin or end there. Earlier in the year, the town bookkeeper of 15 years retired, and the town clerk accepted a position that was a promotion in both position and pay. We therefore had two new employees for this election. Our new Town Clerk started in late January, and the new Bookkeeper began on February 28th. With the shut-down / stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 on March 15, all training was cancelled. The staff did their best working from home or being in the office, one person at a time. The previous bookkeeper, Mary Tolles, even agreed to work one month past her intended retirement date to help out but did retire in early-to-mid May.

In Maine, the Town Clerk is the person who is in charge of elections, and in Hope the Bookkeeper is the Deputy Clerk. Less than 10 days before the election, we learned that the Town Clerk would be on an extended absence and would, therefore, not be there for the July 14 election. This led to a lot of activity trying to get everything covered. The Town Administrator had never managed an election, and the Bookkeeper had only a few months on the job with no formal training on elections. Our Town Administrator was therefore the Warden for the election. The Bookkeeper was one of the counters, and we fortunately had many of our experienced election volunteers there as well.
Some very good news for November is that our Clerk is back, training for municipal employees has resumed, and she will have her official election training at the start of September.

To return to the municipal voting, Maine law allows recounts in only two instances. After consulting with the Town Attorney for Hope, Bill Kelly, Maine Municipal Association (MMA) Legal Counsel, Michael Lichtenstein, and the Secretary of State’s office (state government that oversees elections) we have learned that there are no legal avenues at this point to have a recount or even to open the boxes and compare the number on the tally sheets to those copied onto the spreadsheet of election results to see if the discrepancies were simply an error in copying. Even opening the box is not legal. Mr. Lichtenstein of the MMA wrote to the Select Board Chair on Wednesday, August 19, 2020:

As we discussed on the telephone earlier this morning, the inspection and/or recount of municipal secret ballots is constrained by state law, as follows:

For Secret Ballot Elections of Candidates to Municipal Office:

A tied or losing candidate in an election for municipal office may apply to the municipal clerk to inspect the ballots and incoming voting lists. This application must be in writing and received by the municipal clerk within five days after the result of the election has been declared, together with any fee (if required by the clerk). 30-A M.R.S. § 2530-A. Inspections must be held within five days after the municipal clerk receives the written application requesting the inspection. 30-A M.R.S. § 2530-A(5).

A tied or losing candidate in an election for municipal office may apply to the municipal clerk for a recount. 30-A M.R.S. § 2531-B.  The application must be in writing and received by the clerk within five business days after the day of the contested election, or within five business days after an inspection. 30-A M.R.S. § 2531-B(4).

If a tied or losing candidate claims to have been elected to a municipal office, they may bring an action in Superior Court against the candidate who claims title to the office, but must do so within 30 days after an election. The court shall decide the case as soon as reasonably possible. 30-A M.R.S. § 2533.

For Secret Ballot Referendum Elections:

There is no longer a provision for inspecting ballots from a municipal referendum election. The only way to inspect such ballots is to request a recount, which must be initiated by a written application of voters and must designate a person to be the official representative of the registered voters who request the recount. 30-A M.R.S. § 2532. The time limits, rules and all other matters for a recount for a secret ballot referendum election are the same as for candidate elections; i.e., the recount must be requested within 5 business days after the day of the contested election.
The Select Board regrets the
Annual Town Meeting Referendum errors. We have taken immediate action. Once all the issues have been addressed appropriately, the Select Board will share the results as fully as law allows.

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