BRATTLEBORO—Plaintiffs claiming the town practiced voter suppression after their efforts to amend the town charter failed at the ballot box intend to take their case to the state’s highest court after losing their lawsuit in Windham Superior Court.
Kurt Daims and Craig Newbert of Brattleboro Common Sense (BCS), a grassroots community organization whose tagline is “common sense and fairness in town government,” filed suit against the town earlier this year, claiming that the Selectboard violated state law by interfering “with the voter’s right to amend the Town Charter,” according to court records.
Judge John P. Wesley ruled in favor of the town on July 27.
According to the judge’s decision, “The Court finds Plaintiffs’ claims fail to demonstrate any violation of law, and are largely contradicted by the facts.”
“There is nothing to suggest the Selectboard acted willfully to deceive voters,” Wesley wrote.
BCS takes a different view, writing in a statement, “The court has said it’s okay for the Brattleboro Selectboard to push their way in between the voters and voter suppression reform (not the Selectboard’s proposals) and affect the outcome of the election.”
“Just as there is systemic racism, there is systemic voter suppression,” wrote members of BCS. “It will be surprising to many that Vermont courts and town government will preserve voter suppression in a town that has the most progressive charter in the state that proclaims itself a storehouse of direct democracy.”
Daims and fellow supporters submitted the charter amendments to the Town Clerk through a petition. The amendments appeared on the March 3 town-wide ballot.
Daims, the organization’s director, and Newbert filed suit in March after voters overwhelmingly defeated BCS’s charter amendments.
“Had the proposals been defeated without the Selectboard’s interference, we would have believed that the outcome of the vote was the will of the people,” wrote members of BCS on Aug. 3.
“But the misinformation provided by the board clearly affected the results, and we cannot rest until this matter has been heard by Vermont’s highest court,” the statement said.
The Selectboard released an information sheet before the spring election stating its view of the multiple charter amendments. The board also officially contributed opinion pieces to local media, including The Commons, advocating the defeat of BCS’s amendments.
In court documents, plaintiffs describe this information sheet as “false, misleading, and ultimately the partisan opinion of the board’s members.”
The BCS’s case also claimed that the town added “fragments of commentary” to the amendments when they appeared on the ballot.
In the view of the organization’s leaders, the Selectboard’s actions swayed voters and sealed the amendments’ fate.
According to Wesley’s decision, nothing in the state law governing local elections and town charters cited by BCS in its suit prohibits the Selectboard from distributing an information sheet like the one it produced on the charter amendments.
Wesley also noted that the Selectboard did not send the information sheet to every voter or include language from the sheet in the polling area or on the ballot.
“Therefore, no improper influence was exerted by the Selectboard on the vote,” wrote Wesley.
The court also found no evidence to support BCS’s claim that the town altered the amendments’ language on the ballot.
“Such an interference is not warranted by the facts,” wrote Wesley. “The proposed amendments were in no way altered, and there is nothing to suggest the Selectboard interfered with any voter’s free will.”
BCS supporters asked the court to ditch the March 3 election results and order the town of Brattleboro hold a new town-wide vote. The court saw no reason to do so.
Town: ‘decision is unambiguous’
Responding to the news of the town’s legal victory, Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote in an email, “The decision is unambiguous. The court has affirmed that the Selectboard acted appropriately in full compliance with the applicable law.”
Elwell said that the court case did not cost the town any money above its flat monthly fee to its town attorney, Robert Fisher of Fisher & Fisher.
Elwell estimated that the suit otherwise might have cost the town approximately $4,000.
Selectboard member David Schoales took this stance: “Basically, Mr. Daims wasted taxpayer money, and court and town staff time, on a personal issue.”