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City council race produces tie; special election needed

VERGENNES — Friday morning’s painstaking recount of the race for the final of four Vergennes City Council seats produced a tie. A special election that must by law be held with the next 30 days will decide the victor. 
Former longtime city manager Mel Hawley and sales and marketing professional and former councilor David Small finished in a 339-339 deadlock. That tie in a race for a seat through this coming March came after Small picked up one vote in a recount at the Vergennes fire station that took more than two hours. 
Members of the Vergennes Board of Civil Authority acknowledged that during Tuesday’s original tally one vote for Small was missed during hand counting. Almost 70 ballots were counted by hand on Tuesday when the city ran out of ballots its voting machine could count due to unexpectedly high turnout.   
After the tie was declared, Small and his pro bono attorney, David Silberman of Middlebury, asked the BCA to count four ballots that were ruled defective on Tuesday night. Silberman recommended to the Board of Civil Authority that its members settle the issue on the spot and honor the wishes of the four voters.
Most of those ballots — the nature of the votes were unknown — were defective because residents did not include the signed security envelope in with the larger mailing envelope. (These are so-called “naked ballots” that have become an issue in the national elections as well; there is no issue about whom the voters voted for, but because voters did not put the ballot inside a provided envelope and then inside another envelope, technically the ballots are defective and are not counted.)
But the BCA declined. 
“Those four are definitely dead ballots,” said former city clerk Joan Devine, who assisted the count and read the provisions of the relevant law aloud. 
City Clerk Britney Aube said she was not comfortable counting the ballots, and almost all other members of the BCA agreed.
“My understanding of the law is they’re defective,” Aube said.
Silberman and Small afterward did not rule out appealing the BCA’s decision to Superior Court. 
One source later said such an appeal would be unlikely to succeed due to the precedent it would set, especially with the volume of absentee and early-voting ballots expected in November’s general election.
Certainly, no one objected to the lengthy, careful process used to verify Tuesday’s election results. 
“It’s a recount of a recount of a recount,” said Hawley at one point as BCA members traded stacks of ballots to double-check each other’s work. 
Both candidates also agreed it was unfortunate the special election could not wait until the November general election, and that the recount was important given the original one-vote margin. 
“It absolutely underscores that every vote counts,” Small said. 
Small had run as part of a team effort with city restaurateurs Dickie Austin and Ian Huizenga and contract administrator Jill Murray-Killon, all of whom easily prevailed in the special city council election three days before. Voters awarded Austin and Murray-Killon council seats through March 2022 and Huizenga — and at that point apparently Hawley — seats through March 2021. 
All ran in a crowded field with 14 residents filing for four open spots created by midsummer resignations. Because several candidates sought both the shorter and longer terms, the race for each open seat saw nine candidates. 
Tuesday’s results were: 
• For the two terms that expire in March 2021: Huizenga, 383; Hawley, 339; Small, 338; Michael Daniels, 251; Julian Cesner, 73; Michel “DJ” Djordjevic, 22; Rainwalker Winterpainter, 19; Justin Bassett, 19; Raymond Paul, 9. 
• For the two terms that expire in March 2022: Austin, 470; Murray-Killon, 379; Ziggy Comeau, 176; Beverly Biello, 155; Randy Ouellette, 94; Cesner, 62; Djordjevic, 41; Bassett, 33; Paul, 21. 
The three new councilors will hit the ground running when they join Donnelly, now serving as mayor, and David Austin and Councilor Lowell Bertrand on the newly configured city council. 
Donnelly had already scheduled a special meeting for this Friday at 5:30 p.m. to handle pressing business, some of which has been postponed since July because the council has not been able to meet because it lacked a quorum. But that meeting was postponed at the request of new members, Donnelly said later on Friday, because they wanted training on council procedures before being asked to vote on issues. She said that training would occur soon, and the council would meet on Oct. 13.
The Independent will update this article in Thursday’s print edition. 

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