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District wants bond foes to put up $9.3M

South Washington County Schools wants a citizen group suing over a middle school bond vote to put up $9.3 million to cover potential project cost increases if the election contest turns into an extended court fight.

School District 833 argued in a court filing that if the pending election contest is appealed, the legal process could take months and delay a district timeline to issue bonds for the $96 million measure approved by voters in November. The district motion, to be heard Friday in Washington County District Court, claimed a protracted legal fight could leave the district with higher bond interest rates and design and construction costs.

“Basically what we’re trying to do is protect the taxpayers in the event the bonds are delayed in being sold,” said Michelle Kenney, an election attorney for the district.

The district also wants the election contest dismissed, claiming that the bond opponents did not file their lawsuit correctly and applied the wrong statute in one of their key arguments, among other claims.

Meanwhile, ahead of the Jan. 4 court trial over a handful of disputed ballots, the bond opponents requested that a new judge take over.

The court case is over Question 2 of the district’s three-part referendum, which passed in the Nov. 3 election but by such a slim margin that a recount was requested. A canvassing board last month certified a five-vote victory margin after it reviewed 19 ballots that had not been counted in the election due to how they were filled out. One of the ballots was withdrawn at the canvassing board, and board members decided 13 ballots included “no” votes on the middle school bond.

Disputed ballots

The remaining five challenged ballots were not counted after canvassing board members said they could not determine voter intent.

Bond opponents want the five disputed votes counted as “no” votes, which would cause the ballot measure to fail on a tie. The ballots are being contested because voters either filled in both ovals and crossed out the “YES” oval; marked on the word “NO” but did not fill in an oval; or filled in the letter “O” of the word “NO.”

Susan Richardson, one of three District 833 residents who filed the election contest, called the district’s request for $9.3 million an “intimidation tactic.” The group, which also includes Andrea Mayer-Bruestle and Leilani Holmstadt already paid a required $5,000 surety bond to the court and a $550 case filing fee.

“They’re using intimidation to get us to drop the case,” Richardson said.

Seeking the additional surety bond protects District 833 taxpayers, Kenney said. The trial is set for Jan. 4, but a financial advisor recommended school districts that passed bond measures in November sell construction bonds by mid- to late January. A Feb. 6 bond sale date has been suggested for District 833.

“We’re not trying to intimidate anyone,” Kenney said of the request for $9.3 million. “We’re just notifying the court that in the event this gets prolonged, then there is a real possibility that the taxpayer will be harmed.”

New judge

While the district seeks a case dismissal, bond opponents successfully petitioned to have a different judge hear the case. District Court Judge Susan Miles had been assigned, but the opponents used a procedural rule for a reassignment.

Richardson said they received information from a Republican judicial committee that said Miles “uses law to favor the establishment,” and there was concern about how she had handled child custody cases. Richardson did not provide any specific examples of Miles decisions, nor did the filing explain why a different judge was sought.

District Judge Greg Galler will hear the case.

A central argument of Richardson’s group is that five voters were disenfranchised because the canvassing board did not follow the law when it decided not to count the remaining contested ballots.

But Michelle Witte, leader of the pro-referendum Vote Yes 833 group, said those voters disenfranchised themselves when they cast ballots that were not filled out correctly. Witte also echoed the district’s argument that the opponents are citing the wrong statute as they seek to have one of the five disputed ballots counted.

“That is a matter of interpretation of the law,” Richardson said.

Bond supporters are bothered by the fact that opponents went to court after the election, the manual recount and the canvassing board action. State law allows for an election contest, but Witte said there is no reason it should have been pursued in this case.

“You don’t just get to appeal because you don’t like it,” Witte said, adding: “It’s close. It’s difficult. End of story.”

Richardson said her group did not go to court just to drag out the process.

“We want election integrity here,” she said. “We want this to be a fair and just process.”

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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