Last week, all Mad River Valley towns except Moretown began mailing absentee ballots to voters upon request only. In Moretown, the select board decided to mail ballots to all active voters, whether they requested them or not. This ballot delivery method directly contradicted the guidance of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board, which asked that voters receive their ballots upon request only.
This ballot distribution method is a problem because it is inconsistent with the ballot distribution methods of other towns, ultimately giving voters unequal access to their ballots which creates a potential problem with a union school district. “We don’t know the implications of this and what liabilities we may be subject to post budget vote if voters have had different levels of access to ballots in different towns,” said board chair Caitliln Hollister during a school board meeting on February 10. That night, the school board voted to instruct Moretown to administer the HUUSD budget vote according to the district’s guidelines. However, as Moretown town clerk Cherilyn Brown informed The Valley Reporter on February 16 all Moretown ballots have already been mailed.
HAS THE AUTHORITY
According to Superintendent Brigid Nease, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office said the school board has the authority to determine how its budget ballot is cast and that the town of Moretown must comply with its request. However, she also noted that the Secretary of State’s office cannot compel Moretown to follow the school board’s guidelines.
At the February 10 meeting, the board passed a resolution that spells out the process it followed in asking towns to send out the HUUSD ballot only on request as well as spells out Moretown’s actions.
Nease, via email this week, said that she’d received advice from the school district attorney encouraging the board to pass the resolution.
“He does not believe we should get the grand list or take over any part of the Moretown ballots. The ballot responsibility lies with each town clerk. This means that the ballots were printed and delivered to Cherilyn and that completes our responsibility. We should not engage to change those responsibilities or assist, enable or support them not following the vote of the board and direction from the SOS. (Secretary of State),” she wrote, referring to Moretown town clerk Cherilyn Brown.
Nease said the board had three options. The board could and did pass the resolution for the record and if the board gets sued, its school board insurance would cover the expenses and subrogate those to the Moretown Select Board. This is untested case law and has not been heard by the courts. Secondly, the board could sue Moretown and seek an injunction which could cost $10,000-plus and would not be covered by the board’s insurance. Finally, the board could have changed its policy on February 10 and asked town clerks to send school board ballots to all voters which may not have been possible given the time frame.
When asked why the Moretown Select Board decided to send out ballots despite the school board’s resolution against it, Moretown Select Board chair Tom Martin said it did so in the name of public safety. “We decided to send ballots out because there’s a pandemic going on,” he said. “We didn’t want to have a super-spreader site. We thought it would be best to send them out.”
Martin also noted that the state passed a law allowing select boards to send ballots to all voters. “The state is picking up the additional charge of sending the ballots out,” he said.
Unlike the Warren Select Board, which retracted its initial decision to send ballots to all voters after receiving a notice from the school board telling it not to, the Moretown Select Board members didn’t change their minds after receiving a notice from the board. “We assumed that we would send the school ballots out, then we got a notice from the board saying they didn’t want them to be sent out, with no good reason why,” said Martin.
“They [school board members] passed a resolution to not send out these ballots. I’m sorry, but I don’t see any harm in sending out the ballots, so we sent them,” Martin added. “This is people’s small opportunity to make their voices heard. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. This isn’t politics. We just want to give the people an opportunity to vote and keep them safe.”