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Petition to Annul Merger Vote Is Denied

By Dan Hust
CALLICOON - February 11, 2000 — Last year, Fremont Center resident Tony Wayne sent a petition to NYS Education Commissioner Richard Mills, signed by over 300 local residents and asking Mills to annul the June tri-school merger vote which created the Sullivan West Central School District.
This week, Mills sent his reply back to Wayne. The answer, boiled down from a tremendous amount of legalese, was, “No.”
After a false start, Wayne sent his petition to Albany late last summer, claiming that hundreds of people who were not residents, did not correctly fill out a voting sheet, or otherwise were ineligible to vote cast a ballot at the June 10 vote in Callicoon to merge the Delaware Valley, Jeffersonville-Youngsville and Narrowsburg schools.
Wayne provided reams of lists showing incorrect spellings of Callicoon by voters, allegedly fraudulent addresses of voters (including non-residents) and personal observations regarding improper voting.
But in a six-page statement Wayne received early this week, Mills said Wayne did not establish “that any irregularity occurred at the . . . vote or that alleged irregularities affected the outcome of the vote. [Wayne] has not established that a single named individual was, in fact, unqualified to vote.”
Mills stated that “mere speculation” was not enough to annul the vote and ruled against Wayne.
Although Sullivan West Superintendent Michael Johndrow declined to comment since he had not seen the decision as of yesterday morning, BOCES District Superintendent Martin Handler, who was the interim superintendent for Sullivan West at the time Wayne filed his petition, said Mills’ ruling was “reassuring,” but not unexpected.
“We were sure of what the decision would be,” Handler explained. “We believed all along that the vote was conducted strictly according to State Education Department law.”
Handler added that he felt this decision “removes the final potential concern for moving this process forward.”
Tony Wayne, however, isn’t yet willing to drop his concerns.
“In one sense, I am against the merger,” Wayne acknowledged Tuesday. “But I’m fighting this for the public, not myself. We want to live here and still have money in our pockets.”
But increased taxes are not Wayne’s sole worry. He feels that, since the merger, tensions between pro- and anti-merger factions have spilled over into the hallways of Delaware Valley in Callicoon, claiming that teachers and staff act favorably only towards those whose parents want the merger. He cited instances of allegedly deliberate misplacing of homework by teachers and harsher discipline towards students with parents known to be against the merger.
He also has concerns about potential toxins in the ground at the new high school site in Lake Huntington, and the way in which he perceives the merger is going.
“When they merged, they went from DV’s education to Jeff’s education,” he said. “My kids wanted to go to school every day [before the merger]. Now it’s, ‘Can we stay home? Can we stay home?’”
Naturally, Wayne takes issue with Mills’ decision, pointing out that he asked Mills to excuse himself from the process due to his involvement (through Handler, Mills’ local representative) with the merger vote. Wayne added that the evidence he gave Mills was of a convincing nature, regardless of Mills’ interpretation.
And as far as the commissioner’s question as to why Wayne did not challenge voters at the vote itself, Wayne said he decided to watch cars in the parking lot instead.
“Who wants to make a scene?” he said.
Wayne’s currently undecided about how to proceed, although Handler said he could ask the commissioner to reopen the case.
“He’d have to show there was information not available to him when he originally filed the petition,” said Handler, adding that he has never seen such a case reopened.
Handler said Wayne could also go to court, but the high standards for such a case might prove prohibitive.
For his part, Wayne is thinking of writing to U.S. Senate candidates Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani – or to the FBI. He said he’ll make a decision soon.
Meanwhile, though Handler agrees with Mills’ decision, he is planning to speak with State Senator John Bonacic and Assemblyman Jake Gunther about getting the education law changed regarding merger votes.
“I would love to see the law changed,” Handler remarked, “so that school districts could insist on personal identification or pre-registration.”
Though normally a part of school district votes, those safeguards are not a part of the current merger vote law. It only asks that a voter be 18 or older, a U.S. citizen and a legal resident of the district for 30 days or more (according to state education law, a legal resident is one who votes from that place, uses it on income tax reports or makes some other “overt act” to indicate that is his or her domicile).
Elections officials at the merger vote were not allowed to check IDs, though district residents could challenge voters at that time. The process raised questions about how to properly ensure residency requirements for voters.
“I do think the law could use some changing,” said Handler. “But although I think it could use some changing, [right now] it is the law.”

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