Victors in Gale election turn back legal challenge

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In June, School Reform Board officials were ready to throw out the results of the local school council election at Gale Community Academy, based on a board investigator’s report. But the victors pressed to have their side of the story heard and eventually prevailed.

The election campaign at Gale was a hard-fought, acrimonious battle between two slates of parents and community members—one African-American; the other Latino. Following an intensive get-out-the-vote drive, the five Latino candidates emerged as the top vote-getters, with three members of the black slate taking the remaining parent and community seats. (See Catalyst, June 1996.)

Alleging irregularities, several black candidates and pollwatchers filed a formal challenge. At a May 10 hearing, G. Robb Cooper, an outside attorney the board hired as a hearing officer, said preliminary evidence warranted an investigation by the board’s Office of Investigations.

Investigator Michael Mahone, a former police officer, reviewed documents from the election and checked the addresses given by many of the voters. In a written report, he noted that 126 ballot applications—out of about 390—had not been properly initialed by election judges, and that 18 voters were not qualified to vote because board investigators did not find them at the addresses on their ballot applications.

Mahone’s report also cited interviews with six judges, four of whom complained that “the election was not fair.” The four judges blamed a monitor whom they said “overstepped her authority” in telling them what to do, he said.

Mahone’s conclusion: The election had been “chaotic to say the least,” and both slates “engaged in undesirable behavior.”

Based on this report, Cooper recommended a new election. In a written opinion, he singled out the monitor as “a major concern. … In fact, it is more likely than not that the election monitor allowed both pollwatchers and candidates to electioneer inside the school, to interfere with the judges, and interfered in the process herself.”

The Latino candidates promptly disputed Mahone’s findings, submitting affidavits from 15 of Mahone’s 18 “unqualified” voters, swearing that they lived at the addresses they had given.

The job of ruling on the case fell to the board’s Region 1 chief, Eva Nikolich; she asked Cooper to conduct another hearing.

At that hearing—a tense, three-and-a-half-hour affair—a new picture of election day emerged from the testimony of witnesses called by the Latino candidates.

“I would disagree with anyone who called the election chaotic,” said Ada Lopez, a staffer from School and Community Relations who had spent most of election day at Gale as a monitor. “There were pollwatchers who spoke loud, and I had to remind them to lower their voices. But there was no overt expression of anger to the extent that it would intimidate someone.”

She also denied that monitors overruled judges; rather, she said, monitors admonished judges to follow previously established guidelines on proper identification. At issue was the validity of ID cards issued by a local church, whose pastor was a key advisor to the Latino slate. Under state law, any resident 18 or older may vote in LSC elections; neither citizenship nor formal voter registration is required. The church’s ID-card program is aimed in part at immigrants who lack government-issued IDs, such as drivers licenses.

IDs OK

Before the election, the board had ruled that the church IDs were acceptable, but they remained a point of contention at the school. “The debate about the IDs tended to surface,” throughout the day, said Lopez, “and when that happened, we would remind judges that this had already been ruled on.”

Indeed, in late May, Sandra Stovall, one of the four judges whom Mahone said complained about the election, told Catalyst that she thought the election rules had been enforced consistently. Her complaint was with the church IDs. “We turned a lot of [prospective voters] away,” she said.

Two other board officials who had been at Gale that day—one as a monitor, the other as a judge—also testified that they had observed no irregularities and no chaos; neither had been interviewed by Mahone. Another judge who was not a board employee said that the election had been “very, very busy” but not chaotic.

Still, Cooper said he was troubled by the 126 uninitialed ballot applications.

That failing is irrelevant, argued James Fennerty, an attorney for the Latino candidates. What is important, he said, is that no evidence of fraud—”not one scintilla”—had been presented. “Should the people who won the election give up their rights because a judge forgot to initial the ballot application?” he asked. Fennerty then cited lawsuits in which judges had ruled that elections can be overturned only when serious improprieties are proven.

A few days later, Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts) wrote a memo backing up Fennerty’s arguments. LEAP had been hired by the board to design the election procedures and to recruit, select and assign election judges and monitors. The botched ballot applications were “at most a minor infraction of the election code,” not grounds for overturning an election, LEAP wrote.

And LEAP’s monitor at the Gale elections submitted an affidavit backing up Ada Lopez’s testimony: “No situations arose where a judge took one position, and I took another and overruled the judge.”

That was enough for Cooper; a week after the second hearing, he recommended that the elected candidates be allowed to take their seats. Nikolich concurred and ordered them sworn in.

Two conclusions?

Both sides showed up at the board’s July 24 meeting: Incoming LSC Chair Virginia Aviles to thank Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and board members; outgoing LSC Chair Wayne Frazier to ask how the board “could have issued two different reports.”

“The first report was: It was a total chaotic election,” said Frazier, who won a council seat but lost the chairmanship. “And they issued a second report that was a total different report. I don’t understand.”

Aviles says that the initial report was just shoddy work, and she questions Cooper’s judgment in relying on it initially. “Couldn’t he have noticed that some of the judges and monitors were not interviewed?” she wonders. “Why did we have to bring these people to their lap? Why did we have to do their job?”

At the final hearing, one Latino candidate raged that Mahone’s report “is not just far from the truth. It is absolutely partial.”

Mahone declines to comment, but Office of Investigations chief Maribeth Vander Weele defends her department’s work. “Regardless of how I feel about a specific case, I let the facts speak for themselves,” she says. “The bulk of the [Gale] report was based on factual information and could not be biased. Throwing around … charges [of bias] just points to the amount of conflict in the Gale election.”

In an ongoing effort to end the conflict at Gale, School and Community Relations head Carlos Azcoitia and aide James Deanes personally conducted the initial training of Gale’s new LSC. Deanes says he and Azcoitia hope “to quell the racial tensions. … We know how to work with both communities, and we know some of the people—both black and Latino—so it’s easier. We think they’ll listen to us.”