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New London — The mayor appears to be at odds with the secretary of the state’s office over the resolution passed Monday by the City Council to add three new polling locations in the city.
The resolution could violate a state law that forbids a city from having more polling places than voting districts, according to the senior elections attorney in Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office.
But Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he interprets the state law differently and views it as his responsibility as the city’s chief executive to defend the council’s action Monday.
The resolution, which the council passed by a 4-3 vote Monday, would establish three polling places in the city’s District 1 and two in District 2. District 3 would keep its single polling place.
The statute “requires a suitable polling place (singular) for each district,” Ted Bromley, a staff attorney for the Secretary of the State’s office, wrote in an email Tuesday to New London’s Chief Administrative Officer Laura Natusch, emphasizing “singular.”
“Thus to add more polling places, you would need to add districts as we discussed on the phone,” he wrote.
Natusch had also been in contact with Deputy Secretary of the State James Spallone, who referred the matter to Bromley and the office’s elections director, Peggy Reeves.
“We very much want to move forward in time for the primary,” Natusch wrote in an email Tuesday to Spallone.The resolution had to be approved with enough time for the city’s registrars to pick new polling places and alert city voters at least 31 days before the Aug. 12 party primaries.
Finizio said he interprets the law to mean that the municipal registrars of voters must provide “at least” one suitable polling place in each district, but may provide more than that.
“I have read the statute myself, I am an attorney myself, and I interpret it differently,” Finizio said. “I believe the plain language of the law allows for exactly what the City Council has voted to do.”
Finizio said he wants to hear directly from Merrill because she is the constitutional officer who is ultimately in charge of making the decision.
“As a constitutional matter it is her determination to make, not merely the staff,” he said. “I understand it is their opinion, but I have a very different understanding of the law.”
Finizio said he was not able to connect with Merrill on Wednesday.
“That is our interpretation, that is the interpretation of the secretary of the state,” Av Harris, spokesman for Merrill, said of Bromley’s interpretation.
Harris said the Secretary of the State’s office offers legal interpretations to municipalities, but the city must make the decision of whether it will follow that interpretation.
“We inform them about what the law is, then it is up to the municipality to make a decision and hopefully it complies with the law,” he said. “If they make a decision of variance with whatever we’ve told them, that’s up to them and someone could question whether that decision was legal.”
Harris also pointed to a state law that reads, in part, “the secretary’s regulations, declaratory rulings, instructions and opinions, if in written form, shall be presumed as correctly interpreting and effectuating the administration of elections and primaries.”
Councilor Efrain Dominguez, who proposed the resolution, said he hopes the city can still add polling locations but wants to make sure it is within the law to do so.
“I’ll have to talk to my committee members, the council and include the mayor in our conversations,” he said. “I want to have more voting locations so people can have more reasonable access to voting, but I want to make sure that whatever we do is viable.”
Council President Wade A. Hyslop said Wednesday that the information he received is that the resolution is not permissible. He said he supports the intention of the resolution and hopes the council will take the issue up again in the future.
“Maybe we need to look at the polling places we have now and work on more centrally locating them within the voting districts,” Hyslop said. The resolution likely “needs to go into committee to look at it and develop it better.”
Hyslop said he voted in favor of the resolution Monday night because he would rather have had it pass the council and then be disallowed by the state than have the council not act on it until July 7, giving the registrars just four days to choose new polling locations and alert all registered voters.
Councilors Martin T. Olsen, Michael Passero and Michael J. Tranchida voted against the resolution Monday and expressed concern about whether it was thought through well enough.
“Council has an obligation to do its research and fully understand the impact of what it’s doing and checking if something is legal is a fundamental part of that,” Passero said. “The councilors who supported this had the best intentions and the goals of it are laudable, but it does no good to force legislation through when it’s not ready.”
Passero on Monday proposed that the resolution be sent back to the Public Welfare Committee for further vetting before the council voted on it. That amendment failed.
“It baffles me as to why the registrars of voters were not part of the process to develop this proposal,” said Olsen, who voted in favor of Passero’s amendment. “These are the individuals who will have the responsibility for implementing it and having to take the lead role. It’s perplexing.”