Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ulster County Board of Elections: Shady or Stupid?

Ulster County Board of Elections Commissioners Kathy Mihm and Tom Turco are slated for reappointment at the June 15 Ulster County Legislature Meeting. Unfortunately, I have grave concerns as to whether they're actually up for the job.

There were a series of inconsistencies surrounding the May 5, 2009 Village of New Paltz elections, as outlined below. These inconsistencies were not merely accidents or oversights; they appear to be flagrant violations of the Election Law, enacted by the very individuals who should know right from wrong better than anyone.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, the May 5, 2009 election was run by the Village of New Paltz, rather than by the County Board of Elections, which handles many municipal elections across New York State. It was for two Trustee seats on the Village Board. Petitions were submitted on behalf of three candidates: Pete Healey, an incumbent who had won a special election for a one-year term the year previous, Patrick O’Donnell and Brian Kimbiz. If you read the blog, this should be at least somewhat familiar; Legislative Barbie has affectionately referred to Kimbiz in the past (aka Kazmin aka Kaztard aka...).

Healey and O’Donnell were both accepted onto the ballot; Kimbiz was disqualified from a spot on the ballot after his petitions were challenged by Vici Danskin, a decision made by the Ulster County Board of Elections (UCBOE). His petitions were disqualified on a number of violations, including invalid signatures, incorrect or absent dates and details, and his status as a voter registered in Islip, NY. According to Pete Healey, "I never liked the idea of petitions being challenged; anybody and everybody should have the right to campaign, and these petitioning rules aren't made to be fair or democratic. They're made to be unfair and exclusive. So when I heard his petitions had been rejected, I called the Board of Elections to find out why. When I got the answer, I called him. I suggested to him that he could do many things in response to that, including launching a write-in candidacy. When he did that, I went out of my way to make certain that he was included in the only public forum for the candidates. He never returned the call or reached out to me, he didn't show up to the forum, and he didn't seem to have any public campaign at all. I didn't think he was serious. When he petitioned to be a candidate for Village Trustee, he was a registered voter in Islip."

Kimbiz' failure to attend the forum wasn't a fluke. He also nearly skipped a local Green Party candidate interview, arriving 30 minutes late after repeated telephone calls from interview organizers, and has had lousy attendance at Village Board Meetings since his "victory." Some have questioned why Healey did not campaign harder, and whether he felt betrayed by Kimbiz' campaign seemingly targeting Healey after all his help. "Quietly, he joined with some disgruntled landlords, including his own, apparently, to launch this stealth campaign, when he didn't even know how many Village Trustees actually serve on the Board. It's not betrayal; I didn't think he was serious then, and now, after a year in office, it's clear he hasn't taken it seriously," said Healey.

The final canvass conducted by the Election Inspectors on May 5, 2009 reflected a victory for O’Donnell with 95 votes and Healey with 94 votes. Kimbiz received 91 votes and small numbers of votes were recorded for 6 additional write-in candidates. Kimbiz and Village Clerk Kelly Stengel requested a recanvass by the Ulster County Board of Elections.

On May 7, 2009 the UCBOE Commissioners conducted a recanvass of the results. The Commissioners found errors in the counting of write-in votes on the machine paper and of Absentee Ballots, in which three uncounted eligible ballots were discovered. This led to a gain of three additional votes for O’Donnell and Kimbiz. The corrected totals were O’Donnell with 98 votes, Healey remaining at 94 votes and Kimbiz at 94 votes. In addition, the UCBOE Commissioners overruled the decision of Election Inspectors to discount a vote for “Brian Kazmin.” The Commissioners credited this vote to Kimbiz, leading to his victory over Healey by one vote. Healey was not present, as he was working, and O'Donnell requested an additional count to confirm these recanvass results, but was denied by the Commissioners.

Had this been an issue of counting, there wouldn't be much to say right now. But it isn't about the election, or the outcome of the election. It's about the law and the responsibilities of those appointed to uphold, interpret and implement that law. The same can be said for sour grapes. Healey intentionally waited before beginning to investigate the outcome of the election, essentially waiving his 30-day grace period to challenge the final totals in court (but not to initiate an Article 78 proceeding; that option was waived for him by multiple levels of government dragging their feet and playing games). Healey's initial inquiry to the Village Clerk was submitted the first week of July. "The new village clerk (the one who supervised the election in May quit three weeks later, and a new person took over) delayed me seeing the machine paper rolls until the first of September, because she didn't 'understand' my requests for information on the election. As soon as I saw the bogus vote that was counted for Kimbiz, I contacted the Ulster County Board of Elections immediately, but was put off due to the upcoming Primary. I contacted them again after the Primary, and was told to wait until after the General Election. They stonewalled me for several months, tried bouncing me back to the Village, and the NYS Board of Elections delayed my requests for an additional few weeks. I was finally able to collect the information and meet with the UCBOE Commissioners in February of 2010. I've been bounced around between the three for nearly a year, and it continues to this day."

"In the end, it was the reporting of the changes that the Commissioners made in the recanvass that was the problem all along. No one, not the clerk nor the commissioners and not the media, ever said that the Commissioners changed a voted that had been disqualified on election night into the vote that won the election for Kimbiz, or should I say 'Kazmin.' The law states that they are required to file a report on any and all changes they make, and they didn't do it. That's why I'm pursuing this matter. It's because they didn't do their job, and they assumed powers that the law doesn't give them."

That's not all. A detailed 10-page report has been compiled, outlining the various violations occurring at all levels during the course of this election, and the references to relevant portions of the law, court opinions and media coverage. The report has been submitted to the Ulster County Governmental Services, Environmental and Administrative Committee, which has oversight of the Board of Elections. This report will also be provided to anyone requesting it through Legislative Barbie.

Sections of the report include:

1. UCBOE Commissioners empowering themselves with the ability to change votes upon recanvass, which is expressly prohibited in the law.

2. The failure of the Election Inspectors, Village Clerk and UCBOE Commissioners to count valid write-in votes (hint: does Lorin Rotzler = Rebecca Rotzler? We didn't think so, either.)

3. Flaws with "reasonable intent" and "past practice," the stated justification given by UCBOE Commissioners to disregard the law.

4. Roadblocks to access to timely information by the Village Clerk, UCBOE and NYS BOE.

5. Failure of the UCBOE and Election Inspectors to follow prescribed processes.

6. Failure of the UCBOE to compile and provide documentation reporting on the recanvass results, as required by law.

7. UCBOE Commissioners appear to have intentionally hid their duplicitous practice of vote changing from the media, the government and the public.

8. Failure of the Village Clerk to demonstrate specific duties of her position, as outlined in the law and leading to the destruction of permanent government records.

It is my strong belief that while the statute of limitations may have run out to oust Kimbiz, or take these agencies to court for specific FOIL violations, there should be NO restriction on ensuring that the law is correctly interpreted and enacted. It is the primary responsibility of these individuals to serve as caretakers of the election law, safeguarding our elections and ensuring that they meet the most rigorous standards outlined in the law. While the initial circumstances cannot and, in Healey's opinion, perhaps should not be changed, we MUST hold these officials accountable and take steps to prevent such gross abuses from occurring in the future. Healey trusted that the election was conducted properly, and that trust was severely violated. When elections become a game, or worse, an exercise in "because we said so," we are all violated and we all lose. Well, except for Kaz-whats-his-name. He wins.