Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, Sept. 23 @ 1:03 p.m. / Elections, Local Government
Harbor District Sues Fire Protection District Over Missing Ballots in June Benefit Assessment Vote
The Crescent City Harbor District is suing the Crescent Fire Protection District, stating it never received the nine ballots it was entitled to in order to vote in the Fire Protection District’s most recent benefit assessment effort.
Harbor commissioners realized the district hadn’t received those ballots — worth about 65 weighted votes — just before the June 14 deadline to submit them, Harbormaster Tim Petrick told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Thursday. Commissioners contacted the Fire Protection District following the deadline to find out the ballots had been returned to the sender.
According to Petrick, the Fire Protection District sent the Harbor District a list of voters and addresses and images of the Harbor’s returned ballots.
“There was no visible postmark and the ballots were properly addressed,” Petrick told the Outpost via email. “They were marked, ‘Return to sender, property is vacant.’ The date of the return to sender label was 14 days after the election. This means our ballots were missing for approximately 53 days prior to (being) marked return to sender.”
The Harbor District filed its lawsuit on Saturday, according to Petrick.
However, the fire protection district has yet to be served, Fire Chief Bill Gillespie told the Outpost on Thursday. Gillespie said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation until he receives direction from the Fire Protection District’s legal counsel.
The Crescent Fire Protection District had claimed a narrow victory of $17.80 over those that voted against the benefit assessment following a June 28 recount. On June 29, Gillespie told the Outpost that the value in favor of the benefit assessment came out at $72,503.80 over an even $72,486 opposed to the assessment.
The results were almost the opposite of what it had been following the initial ballot tabulation on June 15. According to the Crescent Fire Protection District, based on the June 15 count, the value of ballots opposing the benefit assessment outweighed the yes value by $19.20.
The Fire District’s narrow victory came after a similar attempt in October 2020 failed by 23 votes.
The Fire Protection District Board of Directors on June 17 had called for the ballots to be counted again after one with a yes vote was accidentally sorted into a pile of ballots that opposed the assessment.
On June 17, Del Norte County Clerk Alissia Northrup said her office had received a total of 1,760 Fire District ballots to count. Of those, 26 were not acceptable because the property owner either didn’t sign their ballot or failed to mark a yes or no vote, she said.
Northrup said she counted 1,734 “good ballots” on June 15. The miscount was due to human error, she said.
On Wednesday, Northrup told the Outpost that the Fire Protection District asked the county elections office to tabulate the returned ballots in the benefit assessment. It was the Crescent Fire Protection District’s responsibility to mail those ballots to property owners within the district, Northrup said.
The new benefit assessment of $74 for a single-family property took effect this fiscal year and replaces an $18 assessment from 2006 that sunsets at the end of the year. Coupled with a $24 assessment from 1987, property taxes going toward the fire district from single-family residential homes would be $98 per year.
Parcel assessments would be capped at $1,000, which would apply primarily to large commercial and multi-unit residential properties.
According to Petrick, the Crescent City Harbor District Board of Commissioners voted against the Crescent Fire Protection District’s first benefit assessment effort in October 2020. During the most recent attempt, Harbor Commissioners didn’t discuss the vote before the June 14 deadline to submit ballots because “we had no ballots to discuss a vote on,” Petrick said.
Petrick said Harbor District representatives also “informally” spoke with a U.S. Postal Service employee.
“(They) confirmed that it was abnormal for it to take 53 days to be marked return to sender and for it to have been marked as vacant,” he said.
Though it had approached the Crescent City Council, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and Del Norte Unified School District with information about the benefit assessment and in hopes to gain support, Crescent Fire Protection District representatives did not go before the Harbor District Board of Commissioners, Petrick said.
“When discussing the missing ballots, the board expressed opposition to the assessment,” he said.
Petrick said he was informed by county resident Linda Sutter, and has since confirmed, that a total of 229 ballots were marked “return to sender” in the Crescent Fire Protection District’s second benefit assessment attempt.
“I won’t go as far as to say that the Fire District broke the law and denied us our right to vote. The Harbor District wants our right to cast our vote and we want everyone in our community to be able to exercise that right as well,” Petrick said. “Many coincidences seem to have come together to create this issue and it becomes difficult to believe the proper procedures were followed and it happens to have favored the Fire District.”