Published November 17. 2011 4:00AM Updated November 17. 2011 1:31PM
New London - The proposed sale of Riverside Park to the Coast Guard Academy took yet another twist Wednesday when a recount reversed the Election Day outcome.
The original tally showed the sale being approved by a 13-vote margin, but Wednesday's recount determined the sale was voted down by 19 votes, 2,098-2,079.
Several absentee ballots were mistakenly counted more than once on Election Day, according to both registrars of voters. That proved to be the major factor in reversing the initial vote, which was 2,117-2,104 in favor of the sale.
A handful of Riverside Park supporters, including unsuccessful mayoral candidate Andrew Lockwood, applauded the results of the recount Wednesday afternoon in the City Council chambers. Lockwood said he was "ecstatic" and said the absentee ballot error was the prime argument he made in a complaint he filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
Mayor-elect Daryl Justin Finizio said Wednesday he was grateful the "No" vote prevailed. After announcing a legal opinion a day earlier that argued in part that the Riverside sale contract deadline had expired, Finizio said that he maintained his position but that there was no longer a need to examine the legal issue.
"My opinion is now it's really beholden upon the City of New London and all of us who urged a 'No' vote to commit ourselves to the revitalization and use of Riverside Park," Finizio said. "We fought to keep the park. Now we have to prove that we will be good stewards of the land."
Kimberly R. Smith, a spokeswoman with the Coast Guard Academy, said the academy was disappointed with the outcome of the recount. Smith said the academy will begin internal discussions to determine what steps it will take to make room for new training programs on its campus.
The Coast Guard was to pay $2.9 million for half of the 18-acre park, which sits on the Thames River next to the academy campus.
Finizio said that he did not regret announcing a day before the recount his and City Law Director Thomas Londregan's opinion that the Riverside sale contract had become void.
"Had anyone waited until after the recount to then express legal concerns - that you knew about and were apparent earlier - it would be seen for what it is: a political statement," Finizio said. "My statement (Tuesday) was a matter of policy. I knew it was controversial and indeed it was."
Mayor Martin Olsen said Wednesday that he planned to place a report on the recount from the registrars on the agenda of Monday's City Council meeting. He also said two letters he recently received would remain on the agenda.
In one he received Tuesday, Londregan argued the Riverside contract had expired because the city had failed to close on the sale by a Monday deadline. The letter also argued the city had not provided comparable land for recreational use or held a public hearing on the matter, as required by a state statute.
In the other letter, dated Nov. 10, the federal General Services Administration agreed to extend the closing date of the Riverside sale to no later than Dec. 31. Olsen said he thought it was important to add both letters to the public record.
Voter intent considered
The recount kicked off shortly after 10 a.m. with about 15 poll workers counting ballots by hand and organizing them into piles. Poll workers inspected ballots for "the intent" of voters, according to Democratic Registrar of Voters William Giesing.
For example, if a voter circled the referendum question or check-marked it - instead of filling in the appropriate bubble - their votes were counted. On Election Day, polling machines would not have picked up a referendum vote in which the voter check- marked or circled an answer.
Tim Hanser, a city resident who said he lives near Riverside Park, held a clipboard with the initial election and referendum results and compared those to the recount numbers released throughout the day by Republican Registrar of Voters Barbara Major.
Early in the afternoon, Hanser argued several times that the absentee ballot votes were not adding up correctly. Major said later that she was happy Hanser was so "tenacious" and that he forced a closer look at the absentee ballots.
The absentee ballot referendum vote was 169-149 in favor of selling a portion of the park, according to Major. It was reported on Election Day as 210-159 in favor of the sale. That left 41 fewer "Yes" votes and 10 fewer "No" votes.
According to Giesing, several of the absentee ballots were folded multiple times and did not go through election counting machines properly. That led poll workers to mistakenly count the absentee votes a second time.
"The length of the ballot is what did it," Giesing said. "Somehow they fell into an auxiliary bin and were counted again. But that's what recounts are for."