To the editor:
Three campaign buttons promoting the Tiverton 1st political group in plain view on the counter in Fort Barton’s office are a pretty minor issue. The fact that Tiverton Town Clerk Nancy Mello dismissed a Charter violation complaint about them is a much bigger problem.
First a word on school campaign activities: Another parent told me about a “stack” of the buttons at Ranger. Before the 2012 Financial Town Referendum, a high school student told a Town Council member that the principal had called a group of athletes into a room and told them how their parents should vote. Another time, a prominent Tiverton resident called me to say that the schools had allowed use of the emergency text list to send political material.
It’s all hearsay, though, because none of them will come forward out of concern that their children might suffer consequences. Honestly, I don’t understand the fear, but it’s disconcertingly common.
The more pressing issue, though, is that the town clerk simply does not have the authority to investigate and judge Charter violations.
When she received the complaint, Mrs. Mello went to Fort Barton and found one button there. She drove to Pocasset, and Superintendent William Rearick happened to call that office; he assured her that she would find no buttons anywhere else.
When I read this news, I emailed the clerk to let her know that she found only one button because an associate of mine had taken two as evidence and recorded his conversation with the secretary. That never made it into her report dismissing the complaint, saying that the evidence did not rise to the level of a violation.
At last Monday’s Town Council meeting, I pointed out that the Charter contains no language authorizing the clerk to dismiss complaints on their merits. Solicitor Andrew Teitz’s response sounded familiar: he finds the legal language to be vague, so the town officials made up their own policy. (I’ve read every clerk letter on every Charter complaint in town, and this policy appears to be completely new.)
Then the Town Council insisted that it has no authority to overrule the clerk … which is not surprising, since she had no authority to rule in the first place. So, now a single elected official can dismiss a complaint — even though her own evidence proved it to be accurate — with no chance of appeal.
Being a public voice on these issues is no fun, and I wish parents weren’t worried that complaining about election-related violations would harm their children’s opportunities. It doesn’t help that they risk public embarrassment if town officials can decide that the plain language of the law doesn’t mean what it says.
Representative government doesn’t work this way. It can’t work this way.