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Judge to Rule Next Week on Revote in Newport

Newport — A ruling is expected Monday on whether the school district must hold a second vote on two articles from the March 12 annual school meeting or on the entire 10-article warrant, as requested by a resident.

The school district acknowledged in court yesterday that Articles 7 and 8 contained incorrect dollar amounts and asked Judge Brian Tucker to have those articles voted on again during the annual Town Meeting vote May 14.

Resident Bert Spaulding Sr., through his attorney Mike Shklar, wants a vote taken on all the articles a second time. Chief among Spaulding’s complaints is that the amended warrant was not made available to voters in a manner that met state law.

At a hearing yesterday in Sullivan County Superior Court, Shklar said the law is clear in that it requires the warrant be available to voters seven days prior to the vote.

“It ‘shall’ be available seven days in advance. Not maybe. Shall be. They didn’t do that,” Shklar said. “Only sample ballots were available and that is not in state law. Our view is that the entire election process was corrupted by failing to have material available as required by law.”

At the conclusion of yesterday’s 75 minute hearing in Sullivan County Superior Court, Judge Brian Tucker said he will issue his decision early next week.

Under questioning by his attorney, Spaulding said amended warrants weren’t made available at the polls on March 12 until 1 p.m. Before that only the annual school report, which did not have the amendment from the February deliberative session, was available.

Neither Spaulding nor the school district is asking for a second deliberative session but the school district’s attorney, Kathleen Peahl, told Tucker that if he ruled by Monday and ordered another deliberative session, there would be enough time to prepare notices for the session on April 15 and the vote May 14.

Peahl disagreed with Shklar’s interpretation of the law that an amended warrant had to be provided.

“We believe the spirit of the law was met by having sample ballots available,” Peahl said, telling Tucker that the appropriate remedy is to revote the two articles that had errors. “The school district concedes there were errors in articles 7 and 8.”

At February’s deliberative session, article 7, which sought $100,000 from any budget surplus at the end of the current school year for the transportation capital reserve fund, was amended to $1. Article 8 asked voters for the identical appropriation for the special education fund but that article was not amended.

On the March 12 ballot, however, the amounts were incorrect. Article 7 was still for $100,000 and the figure on Article 8 was $1 . Article 7 failed and Article 8 passed.

The amendment to Article 7 was the only one on the warrant and there were no other errors on the ballot.

Initially, the school district said it planned to contact the state Department of Revenue Administration and advise them of the error but take no further action. But shortly after Spaulding filed his petition, the School Board voted to ask the court for a revote on articles 7 and 8.

Peahl said the law requires the posting of the warrant prior to the deliberative session, which the school district did, and any amendments appear on the ballot.

“It does not say the district has to prepare an amended warrant,” Peahl said. “Having a sample ballot more than seven days prior to the vote satisfies the requirement that voters have an opportunity to be informed of the final questions.”

Holding a second vote on any other articles besides 7 and 8 would be “excessive and not needed,” Peahl said.

Spaulding has also claimed that article 8 and 9 for unanticipated special education expenses and maintenance were set up as expendable trust funds but instead were called capital reserve funds on the ballot. The difference has to with who has the authority to spend money in those funds.

In article 6, Spaulding said the word “overexpenditures” should be added as a legitimate use of unassigned general funds in addition to emergencies.

Shklar said a letter from the DRA dated Jan. 15 stated that there was no record of capital reserve funds for these two articles but the school district never corrected the warrant.

Shklar said they want the district to hold a new vote on all articles on May 14 after corrections are made to articles 7 and 8 and wording changed in articles 6, 8 and 9. The amended warrant would have to be made available to voters by May 7.

Spaulding said the absence of the amended warrant along with incorrect wording made him say to himself, “wow, we have a real disrespect for the process and the process was not correct.”

On the issue of wording, Peahl said Shklar’s arguments are not relevant and noted that the DRA approved the wording on the ballot.

“The designation does not affect the validity of the fund,” Peahl said. “Whether it is capital reserve or expendable trust fund is irrelevant.”

The goal of holding a second vote on Town Meeting day is to save the school district the extra expense of having a vote on a different day.

On March 12, voters easily passed the $17.8 million budget and one-year teachers’ contract. They also approved $10,000 for a new reserve fund for athletic fields.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.