CLEARFIELD – A special meeting of the Clearfield County Elections Board was held Friday afternoon concerning Bradford Township’s new, court-ordered voting precinct boundaries that have since been rejected by the Pennsylvania Department of State.
The board is normally comprised of the three county commissioners. Because this is an election year, two members – Allen Bietz and Bob Baronick – have been appointed to fill in for Commissioners John A. Sobel and Tony Scotto.
The meeting was requested by county Solicitor Kim Kesner, so that he could review the DOS’ Bureau of Elections Services’ correspondence, dated April 17 to Elections Director Dawn Graham, with the full board.
He said in February President Judge Fredric Ammerman issued an order granting the request by several citizens of Bradford Township, supported by the Bradford Township Supervisors, to change the voting precinct boundaries in Bradford Township.
Once the order was issued, he said the Elections Board accepted the order and map, then, as required under law, submitted the information to the DOS for review.
Kesner said Ammerman approved the redistricting petition and new boundaries for two precincts; however, the DOS has since determined the boundaries “don’t comply with state law.”
He said the DOS correspondence went on to state: “The boundaries, as set, do not conform with census block lines from the most recently completed federal decennial census.”
When the petition was first filed, Kesner said the court directed the Elections Board to file a report of findings and recommendations, which it did.
This report indicated that Kesner’s assessment of state law was the board could only set boundaries in “strict” accordance with census block lines.
However, he said the petitioners argued at a hearing before Ammerman that he had other case authority discretion and could determine what was in “the convenience of the electors and in the public interest.”
Kesner said now the DOS has directed the Elections Board to change the boundaries within 60 days and also advised that failure to make the proper changes may result in a statutory remedy, which would deny the county reimbursements, until the changes are made.
On April 23, Kesner wrote Jessica Mathis, director of DOS’ Bureau of Election Services, because he had a number of legal issues that he wanted to be addressed. First and foremost, he questioned what authority the board has to overrule a court order.
He said the court order was entered Feb. 13 and the 30-day appeal period has since expired, which makes it a “final order.” He said the DOS related informally prior to the court’s hearing in January that it needed to review the outcome.
He said the department was encouraged to come to that hearing and express any legal opinion it had, but it chose not to send anyone on its behalf.
“I don’t know how the board of elections can change a court order without violating it and being in contempt of it,” Kesner said. “The board didn’t redistrict.
“This was a petition filed by the electors, which was acted upon by the court. So, I need to know what legal authority the DOS believes the county has that it can act unilaterally in the face of a court order.”
He said the correspondence suggested the sole criteria for redistricting was census block lines. He asked the DOS how it reconciled this with statutory procedures that provide the court may make such order for the division, redivision, alteration, formation or consolidation of election districts, as well as promote the convenience of the electors in the public interest.
Kesner noted that the DOS hasn’t made any reference to the court order, or that its directive has followed the appropriate appeal period.
So, he asked the department what the board should do and what the consequences would be if the board determines it doesn’t have any legal authority to comply with the directive.
Kesner requested for the DOS to, if at all possible, respond to his e-mail inquiry in advance of the special Elections Board meeting on Friday.
He noted that the 60-day period for response was after the May Primary, and the board has concerns that the DOS’ position may threaten the conduct of this election and inject a basis for a challenge.
On Wednesday Kesner received a telephone call from John Hartzell, the DOS’ deputy chief counsel, who hadn’t’ discussed the matter with his client with it just recently being referred to him. After an informal discussion, Kesner agreed to provide Hartzell with the records from proceedings in this matter.
On Friday morning, he received a follow-up e-mail from Hartzell, who indicated that the department was unable to review all of the provided records and respond to his questions in advance of the board’s meeting.
Hartzell said it was his understanding that reapportionment at the federal and state level are based on census block lines. “This is what allows certainty as to populations in different areas and by extension in legislative districts.
“Such an approach ensures constitutional mandates are met. While the likelihood of this being an issue in the middle of Bradford Township, Clearfield County, is arguably very small, it also creates a unique situation.”
He said so far as his knowledge, Bradford Township is the only municipality in the entire state where election district boundaries do not follow census block lines.
“We’re plowing virgin soil, as we have not faced this issue before,” Hartzell said. “But this is a high priority, and we will be in touch shortly.”
However, Kesner said he couldn’t confirm nor deny Hartzell’s statement regarding the township, adding the reality remains he still doesn’t have any further directive, though it appears the DOS will work cooperatively with the county.
He said while the department can order an adjustment to the boundaries within the 60-day period, the Elections Board didn’t approve the redistricting, the court did under its authority.
Commissioner Mark B. McCracken asked who needed to go back to the court and seek remedy, if that was the next move to be made. Kesner said he was unable to answer that without knowing the position of the DOS.
Then, McCracken asked if the election statute gave the court the authority to take a petition presented by citizens and alter the voting districts, which by the opinion of the court promotes the convenience of the electors and public interest.
“I believe that’s what this is,” he said, “… this was the desire of the citizens of Bradford Township.” C.J. Zwick, attorney for the petitioners and Bradford Township, believed the Elections Board is constrained by the existing court order.
He said the court conducted a hearing, considered all the evidence and testimony and then decided that the proposed map and legal descriptions presented by the township met the requirements of the statute.
Zwick said testimony was heard about folks driving a few miles by one precinct to vote at the other, issues concerning handicap-accessible entries and parking at the Bigler precinct, etc.
“We believe the court found correctly, and even if the State Department disagrees, this board is constrained by that court order,” he said. “It can’t change anything the court ruled without some further proceeding.
“The DOS had notice, they knew when that hearing was and they chose not to show up. Had they showed up they could have given their position. Maybe it would have altered the court’s decision in its order and maybe not. The fact is they had notice and they didn’t show up.”
He also disputed that Bradford Township is the only municipality statewide that doesn’t follow census block lines. He said in his briefs, he argued the statute doesn’t state the township has to “exactly follow” census block lines, but it’s more in a general sense.
Like Kesner, Zwick said it was necessary to obtain the position of the DOS, but ultimately the board can’t act because the court has entered its order. The order, he said, in the petitioners’ view takes precedence over the DOS.
Zwick said he believed the remedy would be for the DOS to come in, state its position and to ask the court to consider that, if it would choose to. To that, Kesner said he was told that the DOS “doesn’t deal with the court, that it deals with the board of elections.”
At the conclusion of the board’s discussion, Kesner reminded that: the DOS has advised the Elections Board that Bradford Township’s voting precinct boundaries are unacceptable; there’s an existing court order setting those boundaries and it’s final; and redistricting can’t be done without going back to the court.
He said the board needs to get further input from the DOS, and regardless of what input it does or doesn’t receive, it must make a decision and respond to the DOS within the allowed 60-day period. “I think it’s going to have to withdraw its letter and look at this more reasonably.”
Kesner said he would keep the board up to date and request for members to reconvene once he receives more answers from the State Department.