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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Polling place study committee: Preston should move elections to middle school

    Preston — A dispute over the town’s polling place for all elections and referendums could be resolved soon, with a recommendation by a study committee to move all town elections to the handicapped-accessible Preston Plains Middle School.

    The middle school at the junction of routes 2 and 164 has a handicapped-accessible side entrance directly outside the gymnasium entrance, and the area could be segregated from school activities during an election, said Jack Smallwood, chairman of the Polling Place Committee. The side area has parking and is a short distance from Town Hall, making it convenient for registrars and for people who accidentally go to Town Hall to vote, Smallwood said.

    The committee made its recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, and selectmen on Thursday set a town meeting for 7:30 p.m. April 4 to vote on the recommendation to change the existing town ordinance to designate Preston Plains Middle School as the town’s polling place.

    The issue does not require a public hearing, First Selectman Robert Congdon said. But since the town already will have a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. March 28 at Preston Plains Middle School on the proposal for the town to join the Uncas Health District, selectmen and members of the polling committee will be available to answer questions about moving the polling place and to show people the proposed south entrance for voting.

    Selectmen said they also would like to move most town meetings and public hearings to the middle school from the Preston Veterans’ Memorial School to “get people used to going to that school for meetings and votes,” Congdon said.

    The polling place became the center of a bitter dispute last fall between town registrars that included a complaint by former Republican Registrar Norman Gauthier to the state Elections Enforcement Commission and a petition to force a town meeting to change the polling place to the Preston Veterans’ Memorial School. Voters at the town meeting soundly rejected moving the polling place and established the study committee to research the polling place issue.

    Gauthier’s state elections complaint still is pending with the state Elections Enforcement Commission.

    Smallwood said at the start of the study, the committee sought a waiver of the handicapped accessibility requirement from the Secretary of the State’s office. State officials referred the matter to the town building official, who rejected the waiver noting the town is aware the current ramp does not meet accessibility standards, Smallwood said.

    The committee considered both schools, the senior center, Preston Public Library and Veterans of Foreign Wars post. The schools immediately were considered the best options, since the town owns the buildings and they are accessible, Smallwood said.

    He said the middle school was the top choice, in part because students are older and the south entrance can be cordoned off easily.

    Selectman and polling committee member Michael Sinko said the gym divider can be closed to segregate voting from school activities, and the south entrance has restrooms just outside the gym.

    Since the waiver was denied, town officials now are in a tight time schedule to hold a town meeting vote before the next planned vote, the annual budget referendum in early May. Residents must be notified of the change at least 30 days in advance of an election or referendum.

    “I think we can present a logical explanation why (the school was chosen), and we can work through things,” Smallwood said. “We can take steps to limit the majority of the foreseen problems.”

    Gauthier praised the committee’s work and called the middle school “a good choice.” He said he recommended the elementary school last fall based on Superintendent Roy Seitsinger’s recommendation at the time.

    “In the complaint, all I’m seeking is compliance,” Gauthier said. “The middle school is a good choice. It has plenty of room, access. I think it’s a good choice.”

    Seitsinger said he initially recommended the elementary school — where most town meetings and public hearings are held — and said the school district was willing to work with the town to move the polling place to either school. Seitsinger accompanied the committee on tours of both schools.

    “I walked with them through both of the schools, and it seemed in the end, the most viable and most manageable space is the middle school, and I support that,” Seitsinger said.


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