State election commission dismisses Sensible Wilton complaints
The State Elections Enforcement Commission has dismissed most of the complaints brought against the town by Sensible Wilton regarding the vote for the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. The vote on the $50-million project took place after a Special Town Meeting on Sept. 23, 2014 and the adjourned vote on Sept. 27, 2014. The margin of approval was a narrow 27 votes on a 17% turnout. The final tally was 979-952.
The commission presented its findings and conclusions at a meeting on Tuesday, June 16.
In three separate complaints, Alex Ruskewich, filing for Sensible Wilton, alleged:
- The town used public money to pay for electioneering in the form of a “Vote Yes” flyer that was widely distributed;
- The town used public money to hold information sessions about the project on “parent nights” at schools on Sept. 10 and 17, and used those sessions to advocate for a “yes” vote;
- The town placed a notice on the town-hosted PTA calendar reading “Vote for Miller-District [sic] Renovation!”
A separate complaint against Miller-Driscoll Principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner resulted in a consent order agreement, which will not be made public until it is signed. According to an SEEC spokesperson, a respondent has 10 days to sign the agreement.
On the issue of the flyer, the commission found it was not paid for with taxpayer money, but with private money. Its report says Susan Price, co-president of the Miller-Driscoll PTA for 2014-15, stepped forward and informed town attorney Ken Bernhard she produced the flyer and had it printed at Paul’s Prosperous Printing, and produced a receipt. She did this, she said, in response to seeing “vote no” flyers on cars in the school parking lot. She said she distributed the flyers at soccer and football fields and Stop & Shop.
Since it found no evidence the town used municipal funds for the flyer, the commission dismissed this allegation regarding town officials, but continued its investigation naming Price as a respondent. This is because the flyers contained no attribution as required by law.
As it continued its investigation, the commission found that Price and Bruce Hampson, a member of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, exchanged emails and he was aware of the flyer, as were committee member Karen Birck and Miller-Driscoll principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner, who were copied on the emails.
But there was no evidence they were involved in the costs associated with the flyer or its distribution. Because she essentially worked alone, receiving help from others only in distributing the flyer, the commission said there ultimately was not a requirement for attribution on the flyer and so dismissed the count as to her.
Ruskewich had asked for a finding in violation of election law with a remedy of a revote.
Alex Ruskewich, in his complaint, said building committee members gave what amounted to sales pitches for the project at parent meetings in September. There was no audio or video recordings to support this claim, nor was Ruskewich able to present any witnesses other than Curt Noel, a member of Sensible Wilton, and John Macken, a parent who spoke at the Sept. 23 Special Town Meeting.
Town officials told the elections commission the building committee gave presentations to many civic groups and meet-the-teacher events to outline the plans to renovate the school. At these events a brochure was handed out that the commission affirmed was neutral in its information.
In addition, the town asserted Parent Night at Miller-Driscoll over the past several years has included a brief presentation on a subject of general interest and this year it was the school renovation. There were three Parent Nights in September and a presentation was made at each.
Bruce Hampson provided an affidavit that said the information presented through a PowerPoint presentation was factual in nature. Susan Price made a statement as a witness that neither committee nor school officials “gave any express opinion as to how people should vote.”
The commission, in its findings, acknowledged both Karen Birck and Bruce Hampson would be inclined to favor a “yes” vote, but there was insufficient evidence to show they actually expressed that opinion at any of the public meetings.
“Here, we have hearsay and competing narratives on what might have occurred, but no concrete record to review,” the commission’s findings said. With insufficient evidence “to make a finding that it was more probable than not that public funds were used to advocate in a referendum here” the commission dismissed the allegation.
The complaint had said these presentations, along with the “Vote Yes” pamphlet improperly influenced the outcome of the vote and a revote was justified.
The final complaint centered on the town-hosted PTA calendar for Cider Mill School PTA that advocated for the renovation. The allegation here is that it is “an impermissible expenditure of municipal funds.”
The PTAs have their websites on the school district servers, but the school district exerts no editorial control over them. This does not necessarily absolve the district from liability, however.
The commission’s investigation found a Cider Mill parent, Madhavi-Sharma Vallabhajosula posted the item in question. She claimed she posted “Vote for Miller-District [sic] Renovation! on the calendar as an event item. She said the wording was not precise because English is not her first language.
Taking into consideration the tone and timing of the post, the commission found it did not rise to the level of advocacy because a “reasonable person would … consider these words, especially in their context on a calendar, to be merely informative rather than anything more.
This complaint was also dismissed.