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'Needless' primary polarizes schools, auditor
An examination of the sequence of events surrounding this month’s “unnecessary” primary election for a seat on the South Kitsap School District’s board of directors reveals a series of missed communications and misunderstandings resulting in the assessment of a $70,000 bill the district still hopes it won’t have to pay.
At the heart of the controversy is Gail Firman Porter, who filed as a candidate for the school board position in Director District 3 only to move out of the district shortly after submitting her paperwork.
Porter finished third in the Aug. 18 primary, but she couldn’t have advanced even if she had finished in the top two because she was subsequently declared ineligible due to her new address.
The question is whether the Kitsap Auditor’s Office, which administers elections, knew about Porter’s pending move in time to pull her name off the ballot but either misinterpreted the rules or gave incorrect advice about the situation.
“The only issue in this particular case,” said School Board member Kathryn Simpson, “is that one of the candidates became ineligible because she moved after filing and the primary wasn’t necessary because that left only two eligible candidates.
“Given the facts available,” she said, “the district has done everything possible to ensure a fair and cost effective election process, inasmuch as it has power to do so. However, the responsibility and authority for the elections process rests firmly with the Auditor’s Office, not the school district.”
Porter first filed for office on June 4. Officially, she had until June 11 to withdraw, but in fact the Auditor’s Office could have taken her name off the ballot any time up until June 15, when the ballots were ordered.
Indications are that Porter didn’t formally ask to withdraw until June 18, by which time it was too late.
But Simpson claims to have had a conversation with Porter on June 7, during which she learned that Porter planned to move.
Simpson says she asked Porter at that point whether her new address was still in District 3 and Porter said she believed it was.
Following their conversation, Simpson said she consulted a map on the Kitsap County Website and discovered the new address was actually in a different district.
This allegedly prompted Simpson to contact Delores Gilmore, elections manager at the Auditor’s Office, on June 8 regarding whether Porter could serve in office if she moved to a different district after filing.
Simpson says Gilmore told her as long as a candidate lives within the district when he or she files for office, they can subsequently move and still serve the first two years of their four-year term.
Gilmore, however, says she has no memory of a conversation and would not have given that advice in any case, since it isn’t accurate.
If Simpson’s version of the events is true and she believed Porter’s move wouldn’t disqualify her from the race, it would explain why she did not contact Porter and encourage her to withdraw or ask that the Auditor’s Office take action to invalidate Porter’s application.
“No one was more surprised than I was at Ms. Porter being declared ineligible in late July,” Simpson said. “Why was I so surprised? Because of the conversation I had with Ms. Gilmore on June 8 where I was very specific in asking about whether Ms. Porter’s move to another director district would affect her eligibility to serve if elected.
“The question of eligibility to be seated was the only reason I called,” Simpson said. “Ms. Gilmore said that the residency at the filing date determined the eligibility, not the election date, and as long as Ms. Porter remained in the school district boundaries, she could serve for two years. I asked her if she was sure because it seemed incongruent to me. She said, ‘Yes, I am sure.’”
For her part, Porter said Gilmore “was very specific” when she eventually notified the candidate that she had essentially disqualified herself by moving to a different district.
“Dolores Gilmore was clear about the law and explained it very well,” Porter said of that conversation.
Simpson said when she spoke with Gilmore on June 8, she identified herself as a private citizen, and not as a member of the school board.
She also said the conversation had a “hypothetical” tone, and that she might not have referred to Porter by name.
While Simpson’s accounts differ from those of Gilmore and Porter, they do include more details.
For example, Simpson cites specific dates and times to support her conversations, while Porter is not always sure when something occurred.
She first claimed, for example, to have attempted to withdraw from the race on June 12, but the Auditor’s Office was closed that day.
She then cited June 11 — the date for legal withdrawal — as the day she attempted to do so.
Later, she conceded the date could have been June 17, since it occurred after she had signed a new lease on June 15.
That lease, along with Porter’s registration, which is dated June 18, provide the only official markers of the sequence.
“If I had known this was going to be such a big deal, I would have paid more attention to the details,” Porter said.
Porter, however, allegedly did have a grasp on at least some details.
“When I talked to her on June 7, she told me the last day to withdraw was June 11,” Simpson said. “I did not know that.”
The situation has led to an exchange between attorneys, prompting the Auditor’s Office to decline further comment until the case is resolved.
This began with a July 30 letter from the district to the county requesting re-evaluation of the $70,000 fee.
The county attorney responded on Aug. 13, saying that each jurisdiction is responsible for its own elections costs, and Porter was lawfully on the ballot.
Porter, for one, suggested the primary be canceled when it was clear that it was no longer needed. While she did not make this request to the county directly, the attorney’s letter noted that canceling an election could be more costly than allowing an “unnecessary” primary to continue.
All parties will certainly pay more attention to detail in the future, but Simpson doesn’t think that jurisdictions need to take a greater role in the candidate selection process.
“It is not appropriate for the district to vet candidates for the school board,” she said. “That goes against the principles of democracy. The candidate and the auditor need to be responsible to enforce the rules.
”I am extremely disappointed,” she said, “that the Auditor’s Office has chosen this time to clam up.”
PRIMARY ELECTION TIMELINE
A quick look at the significant dates in the controversy over Gail Porter’s brief candidacy for a seat on the South Kitsap School Board.
• June 4: Porter files her candidacy papers at the Kitsap County Auditor’s office, for the Position 3 seat. Her candidacy creates the only three-way race in South Kitsap, making the school district responsible for the cost of the election. At that time Porter is living in District 3 with an intention to renew her current lease.
• June 7: School Board member Kathryn Simpson calls Porter to welcome her to the race, inviting her to attend a school board meeting. Simpson claims to have learned during this conversation of Porter’s plans to move.
• June 8: Simpson calls Elections Supervisor Dolores Gilmore, identifying herself as a private citizen and posing a “hypothetical” situation about a candidate who moves out of the district and whether he or she would be able to serve. According to Simpson, Gilmore said that a candidate could live outside the district and serve for two years before a special election. Gilmore says she does not recall the specific conversation, and that Simpson’s interpretation was incorrect.
• June 11: The legal deadline for withdrawing from the primary election ballot. Also the approximate date on which Porter visited the Auditor’s Office and posed her own hypothetical about whether she would be able to serve if she did not live in the district. She did not change her registration at that time.
• June 15: The “real” deadline for candidate withdrawal, since the final ballot order was submitted by the county; Porter signs a lease on her new house on Jasper Lane, in District 2.
• June 17: Porter calls Gilmore, who explains that Porter will not be able to serve if she does not live in District 3. Porter then visits the Auditor’s Office and changes her voter registration to her new address.
• June 18: The change of registration filed by Porter the previous day is entered into the record. Porter decides that if she cannot withdraw she will continue her campaign even though she cannot serve if elected. She subsequently completes a profile for the online voters’ guide and appears at campaign forums.
• July 30: Based on material supplied by Simpson that the county knew about Porter’s ineligibility but did nothing to correct he situation, the school district’s attorneys send a letter to the auditor requesting re-evaluation of the $70,000 fee.
• August 13: The county attorney responds to the district on August 13, saying that each jurisdiction is responsible for its own elections costs, and Porter was lawfully on the ballot.
• August 18: Porter’s candidacy ends, as she earns a third-place total of 19.02 percent of the vote.
SOURCES: Interviews with participants, public record, Robert Meadows.