JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Voters sue over Novato Sanitary election

A pair of voters, claiming they were disenfranchised because they weren’t given the chance to vote, filed a lawsuit late Monday to contest the results of the Nov. 3 election for three seats on the Novato Sanitary District board.

The complaint was filed by Suzan Sharpley and Robert Abeling, who say they represent a type of voter who should have been able to vote in the Novato Sanitary election but couldn’t because the race was excluded from their ballots. The lawsuit names as defendants Marin County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold and district board member Bill Long, who defeated challenger Bill Scott by 15 votes.

The final tally, 4,338 votes for Long and 4,323 for Scott, came after an extensive manual recount by Ginnold’s office.

“I’m disenfranchised,” said Abeling, an Indian Valley resident whose home is on a septic system and situated outside city limits but who receives garbage service from district subcontractor Novato Disposal Service. Abeling said he has been voting in Marin for more than 50 years but didn’t notice the Novato Sanitary snafu until he heard about the controversy surrounding the election and its aftermath.

Sharpley says she was inexplicably dropped from the district’s voter rolls despite the fact that she is a longtime customer and has been voting in district elections from her current address on Center Road in Novato for 34 years. The complaint claims that there are 31 households in Novato that are in a similar predicament as Sharpley.

The alleged error centers on the district map submitted to the county from which the voter rolls are derived. The suit claims the map excluded district customers and that Ginnold’s office “failed to note obvious errors on maps and that the district failed to notify (voters) as required by law.”

San Rafael attorney Dotty LeMieux filed the claim on behalf of Sharpley and Abeling. She said that although there may be only 31 households like Sharpley’s affected, that could be enough to change the gap between Long and Scott. The suit claims that there could be as many as 2,000 voters in a similar situation to Abeling.

“It looks as if there are enough people who have been disenfranchised that the vote could have changed,” she said.

Although he is not a party to the suit, Dennis Fishwick, a former Novato councilman who unsuccessfully ran for a Novato Sanitary seat on Nov. 3, spearheaded the research that triggered it. He said he was notified by several district customers in the days leading up to the election that the race wasn’t included on their mail-in ballots.

“It’s a travesty the way they have walked all over the voters of Novato,” Fishwick said of the district’s alleged errors.

The plaintiffs hope to get a court to call for a whole new election, possibly in conjunction with a June 2010 referendum on the district’s decision to privatize its new wastewater treatment plant. But Fishwick said a cheaper and easier way is possible. He hopes a judge would allow those who have been disenfranchised to vote as an addendum to the Nov. 3 election, despite the fact that it has already been certified and winners Mike Di Giorgio, Long and Welsh have been seated.

Ginnold was not available for comment Monday. She previously said that an election could not be amended once the polls closed on election day, and that she had hoped to avoid a complaint such as this by giving both Long and Scott a chance to view last month’s two-day manual recount of half of the 28,548 votes cast in the race.

“If there are disenfranchised voters, the situation should be remedied going forward for sure,” Long said. “I don’t know what the law allows for in the case of an election that’s already been held where someone has missed the opportunity to vote if they are entitled.”

LeMieux said she expects to get a hearing in the case by mid-January.

“I’ll just be doing my job until some judge says otherwise,” Long said.

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December 21, 2009 Marin IJ, News