TRURO — The select board unanimously reappointed two temporary members of the board of registrars on Dec. 12 after expressing dissatisfaction with the list of eight candidates for the two seats that had been submitted by Timothy Hickey, chair of the Republican Town Committee.
There were too many married couples on the list, the board said.
The registrars are a town board that normally works quietly behind the scenes to assist the town clerk in maintaining voter lists and promoting voter registration. But the registrars have figured prominently in the news recently because they have heard dozens of challenges against new voters following the exposure of a secret campaign by the Truro Part-Time Resident Taxpayers’ Association to induce its members to register to vote in town.
Thirty-four of the challenged voters are no longer on the rolls: 13 were removed by the registrars, and another 21 withdrew their registrations voluntarily. One those removed by the registrars, Michael Oliverio, has attempted to file suit against them, calling their hearings a “kangaroo court.”
The board of registrars should have four members. Because there were two vacancies when the voter challenges were filed, the select board appointed Julie Cataldo and Heather Harper to 60-day terms on Oct. 13. Last week, those appointments were extended for 28 more days to Jan. 9, when the select board will next meet.
The registrars are to represent the two major political parties equally as far as possible, and the chairs of the two town party committees are to submit lists of candidates.
Before the select board’s Dec. 12 meeting, Hickey had submitted a list of eight candidates for regular appointments that included three married couples: Steve and Bonnie Sollog, Caren and Steven Garvan, and Karen and Louis Rimondi. The other two candidates were Dennis O’Brien and Fran Johnson.
Four members of the select board were opposed to a marital pair serving together as registrars.
“In consulting legal counsel,” said chair Kristen Reed, “there is a concern regarding the potential conflicts of interest and the perception of the possibility of Open Meeting Law violations with the appointment of common family members who cohabitate.”
Vice chair Sue Areson was also concerned. “I personally have a problem with appointing a married couple simply because it’s half of the board,” she said.
Stephanie Rein agreed. She thought it was all right for the two Republican committee members to be friends, but “there’s a difference between being a friend and being a life partner,” Rein said.
“You don’t have to choose a couple,” Hickey told the board. “I wouldn’t choose a couple.” Hickey expressed frustration that the select board had had his list of nominees for more than a month and had not indicated that there was a problem. That, Reed responded, was because the board prefers to “work under the scrutiny of cameras and the public.”
John Dundas was the one board member who was comfortable with wedded registrars: “In a small town like ours, we’re going to have spouses, thankfully, working together,” he said. “I have full confidence in the people presented to us that they can handle it.”
But Bob Weinstein said he would not consider a married couple serving together on the board. He did not anticipate it being difficult for Hickey to come up with a new list. But he also didn’t mind choosing an unmarried pair from the roster that had been submitted.
State law does not explicitly grant the select board authority to ask for a new list of candidates. But according to Town Manager Darrin Tangeman, town counsel had advised that requesting one fell within the board’s powers.
“If the select board is not satisfied with whoever is provided, they can ask for new nominees,” Tangeman told the Independent. “They are ultimately the appointing authority.”
Hickey wondered why the board could not interview all the candidates and select an unmarried pair from the list. But Reed said she wanted “six viable candidates … being compared against each other in a fair way.”
Hickey must now submit a new list of nominees to fill the two vacancies. This time, he confirmed, there will be no married couples.
“Excluding one member from each couple seems like the prudent thing to do,” he wrote in an email to the Independent.
When Cataldo and Harper were initially appointed as temporary registrars, Hickey had submitted a couple for consideration: Susan and Wes Chapman. But they were found to be out of compliance with the town’s short-term rental policy, Reed said at the Dec. 12 meeting.
The select board also wondered why Hickey did not nominate Harper and Cataldo, given their recent experience in hearing and ruling on dozens of voter challenges.
Hickey told the Independent that he would consider nominating them, but they “would need to request being interviewed by the Truro Republican Town Committee as soon as possible.” They are not committee members, he said, though “the request would be well received, as some of our members have spoken highly of them.”
That the Republican committee is cooperating in drawing up a new list, Hickey made clear, is not because he agrees with the select board’s vote.
“The decision not to accept our roster is dubious,” Hickey said. “The town had the list we provided for a month, as did the town clerk. By raising this objection at the hearings, they disrupted a lawful process in an unlawful way.”
“This is what open government looks like,” Reed said on Dec. 12. “It’s going to feel a little bit uncomfortable because we’re making the sausage.”