And in the Free Town of Grafton...a story of abuse of small-town government power - Granite Grok

And in the Free Town of Grafton…a story of abuse of small-town government power

A month or two ago I blogged about those magnificent small-government activists of Grafton, New Hampshire. That was when an alliance…

…of small-government town voters forced the town to consider a 10% reduction in the town’s budget for the next year, not an automatic increase, as is usually the case. The decision at the general election came down to whether the people wanted the 10% budget reduction, or for the budget to remain static, i.e. the same as the previous year. Out of several hundred votes, the people voted to keep the budget static…by about 15 votes. Although a reduction would have been better, the general feeling in town is that local government has enough money to play with, and needn’t automatically increase it. (In better news, the school district’s grab for more than $21 million in unnecessary school improvements was defeated, albeit narrowly.)

But now I find myself writing an explanatory letter to the town fathers (and mothers) explaining why I threatened to sue the town of Grafton and several of its officials recently on another issue. Why would I want to do a thing like that? (That’s not nice, for one thing.) Well, I’ve just sent off a long explanatory letter that gives an overview of a major brouhaha and contretemps that occurred recently in the Free Town, and how it was resolved. I think it’s important and interesting enough put it on the Grok! (Well worth reading, if I do say so myself.) So here it is:

April 15, 2013

Stephen J. Darrow, Chairman
Grafton Board of Selectmen
P.O. Box 299
Grafton, NH

Re: Voter registration list dispute

Dear Steve:

I apologize for my somewhat tardy response to your letter of January 30, 2013 regarding our recent contretemps over the Grafton voter registration list. As I said when we spoke on election day on March 12th, I need to respond to your last letter to me because I believe it is important that you—as well as the other members of the Board of Selectmen and other Grafton town officials—understand my position and why the town’s position made it necessary for me to take the steps I did in our dispute.

As you may recall, in early January 2013 I requested information from Mary Warren, Grafton’s Supervisor of the Checklist, about purchasing a copy of the town’s voter registration list. She was helpful, and told me where to send a check, and in what amount. As a result, on January 7, 2013 I sent a letter and a check in the required amount of $25 to obtain a copy of the list. What came back to me was a pdf file reflecting photocopied pages of the Grafton voter registration list.

In a subsequent series of exchanges with Mrs. Warren, you, and other town officials, I explained that I was seeking a copy of the voter registration list in electronic format that would be suitable for importation into a spreadsheet or similar computer program (so that it could be used in the same way that similar lists are routinely used by Republicans and Democrats all over the state). In response, I was originally told that the town doesn’t have such a copy of the registration list, and that such a list was not available to the town.

However, after I contacted and spoke with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office, specifically the HAVA division (“Help America Vote Act”), I found that such a list was indeed available to the town. At the HAVA office they explained to me that every town in New Hampshire, including Grafton, has the easy capability to produce the town’s electronic voter list in the form I needed. They also offered to help the responsible official in Grafton produce the electronic list, saying that if there was any problem I could give the HAVA office number to the Grafton contact so that the town official could be “walked through” the process of generating the electronic voter registration list. Someone from the HAVA office even went so far as to send an email to Grafton offering to help.

With the HAVA office information, I again requested an electronic copy of the town list. It was refused. The basis for the refusal now had become that although Grafton—like every other town in New Hampshire—has the capability to generate such a list, it is not required to do so…and Grafton had decided that it would not do so. I was informed that the refusal was buttressed by a legal opinion from the town’s lawyers. When I asked for the name of the town’s law firm that had given the opinion, I was refused, thereby foreclosing any possibility of me being able to confer with them, lawyer-to-lawyer, to explain my legal position and give them further valuable information to consider in advising the town.

Thereafter on January 24, 2013 I sent an official RSA 91-A request by email to the Grafton board of selectmen and to Mrs. Warren, once again asking for an electronic copy of the voter list, as well as for the name and address of the law firm “retained or utilized by the Town of Grafton for litigation or threatened litigation pursuant to RSA 91-A.” The response was a letter from you dated January 28, 2013. The content of part of that letter is worth revisiting:

Dear Mr. Condon: RSA 91-A does not require that the town create any document to respond to a request. The town does not have the list in the format you seek, but will provide you with an electronic copy of the list in the format we have [i.e. a pdf file].
As for the name of the town’s law firm, RSA 91-A does not require that the town povide you with that information. Moreover, the town does not give out that contact information to citizens, because it is the selectmen’s responsibility to control the town’s legal budget and the selectmen cannot do so if unauthorized citizens are contacting the town’s lawyers. We trust this addresses your requests.

In other words, the town of Grafton would give me only a copy of the voter registration list in the form that I had already paid for and received. My response to that letter was sent to you by email; it also is worth quoting in part, as follows:

Greetings, Steve, and thank you for your letter of January 28, 2013 responding to my RSA 91-A request sent to the Town of Grafton Board of Selectmen. I have to disagree with you about the question of whether RSA 91-A requires the town to create a copy of the voter registration list suitable for importation into a spreadsheet (or in a spreadsheet format itself). I think that is at present an open question with regard to voter registration lists; a court would probably rule on that question if I were forced to bring an action under 91-A to get the list. However, any such action by me is entirely avoidable, for several reasons, as follow:

1. First, I want you to know that I am in touch with many other people in New Hampshire who are having no problems whatsoever in obtaining electronic “spreadsheet” copies of voter registration lists in multiple towns. Only Grafton so far appears to be stonewalling such a request.

2. Second, there is no question that Grafton has the ability to generate a list in either spreadsheet or spreadsheet-importable format through the ElectionNet system. That is how all the other towns generate such lists, and two separate state officials in the HAVA (Help America Vote Act) office in Concord have volunteered to help anyone in Grafton in order to “walk them through” generating such a list.

3. Third, I have today spoken with Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan in Concord about what is being done in Grafton with regard to this matter. He has told me—and authorized me to tell you—that the list in the form I am requesting “should be given to me.” It can easily be generated using the ElectionNet interface (which every town in New Hampshire is required to utilize pursuant to law), and there are people in the HAVA office, as noted above, who will assist in generating the list if help is needed.

Right now, as far as I can tell, it appears that my request is being resisted based upon nothing other than a desire to stymie me personally. I assure you that if this continues I will file a lawsuit against the Town of Grafton, I will be represented by a New Hampshire attorney, and I will ask the Court to level civil penalties against the persons in Grafton who are responsible for this conduct. I also want you to know that this email constitutes notice to you—and through you also to the other members of the Grafton Board of Selectmen, as well as the town clerk and the supervisor of the checklist (both of whom are being copied with this email)—that I have a right to a copy of the Grafton voter registration list in spreadsheet format or spreadsheet-importable format, and that the town of Grafton has the capability to easily generate such a list at no cost to itself other than a simple phone call to the HAVA office if assistance is needed. I urge you to call and speak with Mr. Scanlan in the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office if you have any doubts about whether you should provide me with what I am requesting. If the town continues to refuse to provide me a copy, it will do nothing other than waste tax dollars on lawyers litigating a matter that should and could be easily and quickly resolved.

Feel free to call if you have any questions, Steve, and I hope to see you when I’m next back home in Grafton in a week or two.

I suggested calling Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan about the situation because I had been referred to him by the people in the HAVA office (who had mysteriously become less friendly and helpful, apparently having been told by someone that I was a “troublemaker” and that my routine request for the electronic voter list was somehow unreasonable). When I had spoken to Mr. Scanlan, he reiterated to me that the town of Grafton had the ability—if not the obligation—to produce for me an electronic copy of the voter registration list, but that the town had apparently decided not to produce the list, even in the face of the RSA 91-A request. When I asked whether the town’s position was “reasonable,” Mr. Scanlan temporized, but finally admitted that “they really should just go ahead and produce it for you.” I asked him if he would allow me to use his name to that effect and give his phone number to town officials in Grafton, and he said yes, which is why I mentioned him in my email to you.

Thereafter the electronic list was produced and sent to me by email—as could have and should have been done weeks before. Finally, you sent me a last letter in which you said “while I understand that you may not be as familiar with New Hampshire law as you undoubtedly are with Florida law…a simple collegial request for assistance rather than a demand accompanied by a threat of litigation may have been more expeditious.”

We’ve met and talked since then, and I appreciate your candor and generally friendly disposition…but in response to your words above, I must respond: “Are you kidding me?”  The fact is that the entire uproar could have and should have been avoided by simply generating and giving me a copy of the voter list as requested. The unnecessary waste of my time and effort as well as the town’s was entirely caused by the intransigence of various officials in Grafton. None of it would have been necessary if the town had simply talked with the people in the HAVA office at the outset, generated the necessary electronic list, and sent it to me.

I want you to know also that I believe I would have prevailed in court if the obstructionism had continued. I know this because I conferred with another individual in another town who was forced to bring legal action pursuant to RSA 91-A over exactly the same issue; the town was told by the judge at the first hearing—with some headscratching over why the town was stonewalling the matter—“give him the list in the form requested.”

Finally, that brings me to what I need you and every other official in Grafton to know: It is clear that I and other libertarian and conservative political activists in the town are intensely disliked by some town officials (I hasten to add that this does not apply to all; I have a very cordial and respectful relationship with most people and most officials in Grafton). This hostility has expressed itself in various ways, extending even so far as to falsely accuse me and eight of my friends in Grafton of fraudulent voting several years ago (including Lloyd Danforth, who at the time held an elected position with the supervisor of the checklist). Those false allegations (made anonymously, of course) were obviously intended to attack me and my politically active friends, and to suppress our vote in town and state elections. Because of them, I was forced to file a lawsuit against the state of New Hampshire and the Attorney General’s office in order to vindicate my own right to vote.

Today we are experiencing a reprise of the effort to dispossess people of their right to vote in Grafton. As was reported in the Valley News last month, someone has once again filed “a complaint of potential voter fraud during the Town meeting in Grafton.” This new complaint relates to the election held on March 12, 2013, and apparently again contains false allegations of fraudulent voting, including groundless allegations of excessive same-day registrations and false allegations that multiple people living at one address were voting fraudulently. You are probably aware of this, and you are also probably aware that the claims of fraudulent voting are without basis. Nevertheless, an investigation by the state attorney general’s office has been launched based upon “sufficient grounds to investigate.” This is a second effort to suppress the voting rights of a of a group of voters in our town, and attempting to discourage people from voting in any election in New Hampshire is a felony criminal violation of RSA 659:40 (my hope is that the deputy attorney general in charge of the investigation realizes this at some point).

The recalcitrance of some town officials in Grafton in the face of my routine request for a copy of the voter registration list is also emblematic of the type of hostility outlined above. I need you to know that the libertarians and conservatives in Grafton aren’t going to “go away” no matter what unfair and possibly illegal strategies are employed against them. I will avail myself of every legal means afforded under the laws of the state of New Hampshire to respond to contumacious and/or illegal actions by any town officials or citizens who seek to violate the law in acting out their hostility toward any group, including the town’s libertarians and political conservatives (and in time I will be living in Grafton year-round with my wife when we are both able to, instead of only being able to be at my home at 12 Liberty Lane for a few days each month).

Steve, I am telling you all of the above in order to explain why my threat to bring legal action against the town was necessary. “Power corrupts,” as we all know, and the corruption that government power can bring is no less commonplace in the politics of small towns than it is in cities and states (not to mention the mess that everyone now recognizes to exist in Washington, DC). We read about such things almost weekly in the newspapers, and both you and I are aware of arguably corrupt acts that have been done right here in the town of Grafton in the past. All result from the hubris that is often attendant upon gaining personal political power (little though it may be in a town of our size). I believe the town’s obstinate refusal to generate and give me the voter list that I requested is an example of such abuse. I will not stand for it, nor should I have to; nor should any other residents of Grafton. If it takes a lawsuit to prevent abuse of political power in Grafton, then a lawsuit is what will happen. (Interestingly, I have found that the “radical political types” are far less subject to the corrupting influence of personal political power than most people. Why? Because they are primarily motivated by sets of moral principles, not personal aggrandizement. Thus, when they are confronted with the opportunity, they are more likely to demur than to benefit themselves at the expense of the public. I understand that to some people this is “scary”; I personally very greatly appreciate it.)

Well. I originally meant to just send a one or two-page letter to you explaining my position. It grew into this, which I now think is interesting enough that I will publish it on where I blog. In the meantime, thank you for your communication and consideration, as well as for your service to Grafton.

Yours very truly,

/s Timothy Condon