UPDATE: Freeport councilor is allowed to stay on ballot; decision spurs campaign to change charter

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FREEPORT — After two special meetings, town councilors determined Tuesday night that Councilor Rich DeGrandpre’s nomination papers are valid.

The decision means DeGrandpre’s name will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot for re-election.

Residents who challenged DeGrandpre’s papers on Wednesday morning said they will not go to court to reverse the decision. Instead, they will try to have the Town Charter amended.

On Sept. 20, Sandy and Peter Thompson of Byram Avenue questioned the validity of DeGrandpre’s papers for two reasons: They claimed Town Clerk Beverly Curry failed to notarize his nomination papers, and they claimed that as a petition circulator for DeGrandpre, Council Chairman Jim Cassida gave the papers to resident Nancy Clark to circulate at a Sept. 11 gathering, but failed to witness all the signatures.

The council voted 3-1 Tuesday to grant the Thompson’s objection to the nomination papers because Cassida was not in the physical presence of two petition signers, John Skillin and Paul Lowe. Councilors struck Skillin’s and Lowe’s signatures, but said the remaining signatures are valid.

At a previous special council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 21, the four councilors who were not witnesses or involved in the challenge – Sara Gideon, Jim Hendricks, Charlotte Bishop and Joe Migliaccio – unanimously denied the objection filed over the clerk’s failure to notarize the petitions. Councilor Eric Pandora, Cassida and DeGrandpre recused themselves from the vote, but were able to provide testimony in the hearing.

Pandora filed an affidavit stating stating he witnessed two residents sign DeGrandpre’s nomination papers without Cassida’s knowledge.

The councilors voted 4-0 to rectify the clerical error as allowed by state law and the Town Charter. They also determined that there was no proof of fraud or a knowingly false statement made by Cassida when he submitted the nomination papers for DeGrandpre.

During Tuesday’s continued deliberation, the discussion focused on the signatures of Skillins and Lowe and whether Cassida was in their physical proximity as they signed DeGrandpre’s papers.

Gideon, the dissenting vote, said she did not see definitive proof or conclusive evidence that Cassida was not a personal witness to the signatures. She said reading through the statements provided by Pandora, Skillin and Lowe, she did not believe the evidence proved “more likely than not” that Cassida failed to witness the signatures.

But Migliaccio said while he does not believe Cassida’s actions were malicious in nature, there was sufficient evidence and testimony that Cassida did not witness the signatures.

Bishop and Hendricks were in favor of discounting the two signatures in question, while approving the rest of the petition.

But the Thompsons and their attorney, Peggy McGehee, argued that according to the Town Charter, any signature collected without a witness should negate the entire petition. McGehee said state election law does not apply.

“So we are saying that the petition according to the Town Charter is insufficient and that means the entire petition is invalid,” McGehee said. “You can’t pick and choose among signatures.”

But town attorney Geoff Hole referred to state law that says as long as no proof of fraud or a knowingly false statement is provided, signatures collected outside the circulator’s presence should not be counted, but the rest of the petition remains valid.

An at-large candidate must collect 100 signatures; DeGrandpre received 112. The removal of two signatures would allow him to remain on the ballot.

The Thompsons’ challenge would have invalidated 27 signatures, leaving DeGrandpre 15 signatures shy of qualifying for the ballot.

In an email Wednesday morning, they said that instead of suing the town, they will ask the council to initiate a charter amendment process to “define and fill gaps that exist in the Charter in the areas of elections, conflict of interest, public participation, financial management and the contracting of the town’s legal services.”

If the Town Council opts not to act, the Thompsons said they will work with other residents to initiate the process by voter petition.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @amy_k_anderson.

Updated Sept. 28, 2011, at 8:50 a.m.