Results of the disputed Wellington municipal elections might come down to a manual recount after the Wellington Canvassing Board voted Tuesday evening to certify the March 19 recount results subject to a hand recount.
In the wake of the decision, several lawsuits were filed Wednesday by candidates and Wellington voters asking for a court order to speed up the recount process.
When the Town-Crier went to press, the issue was expected to be heard in court Thursday morning.
Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz told the canvassing board Tuesday that he and Ken Spillias, attorney for Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, agreed that the canvassing board is the certifying body for the election results, not Bucher.
Spillias said that the original results released after the March 13 election were “certified” to be true by Bucher, but not officially certified to end the election process.
“The Supervisor of Elections delivers the results to the canvassing board,” Spillias said. “It’s the canvassing board who certifies the outcome of the election.”
On Monday, March 19, a post-election audit discovered that the results of the vote were incorrectly tallied due to a computer error, prompting the canvassing board to request a machine recount.
New counts show that Matt Willhite was re-elected to Seat 4 and candidate John Greene was elected to Seat 1, not Al Paglia to Seat 4 and Shauna Hostetler to Seat 1 as previously announced.
Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Bob Margolis still defeated incumbent Darell Bowen, but by a razor-thin margin. Recounted results show that Margolis took 2,947 votes (50.6 percent) to Bowen’s 2,877 votes (49.4 percent).
In the Seat 1 race, Greene came out ahead of Hostetler. Greene took 2,956 votes (51.85 percent) to Hostetler’s 2,745 votes (48.15 percent).
And for Seat 4, incumbent Willhite had the highest winning margin of any race — 3,341 votes (58.07 percent) to Paglia’s 2,412 votes (41.93 percent).
Kurtz said the canvassing board could certify the March 19 recount results or ask for a manual recount.
“I believe if this board wanted to order a recount [you] could,” he said. “There has been considerable public comment to have a hand recount of the ballots to confirm the results.”
Spillias told the board that he would suggest Bucher seek action for declaratory relief from the court to be sure she is within legal bounds. “I would advise her to file, so a judge could rule whether she could do so,” Spilias said.
Councilman Howard Coates, a member of the canvassing board, asked whether the voting software had been corrected between the time the audit discovered there was a problem with the initial tallies and the machine recount ordered last Monday.
Bucher said it had been.
Coates further asked whether the supervisor thought the results of a hand recount would differ from the machine recount.
“No,” she said. “The audit came back 100 percent. The audit is hand-counted.”
But Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, one of the canvassing board members who discovered the initial error, pointed out that the same race and precinct were audited twice. Bucher said it was a random occurrence.
“We have stacks of ballot cards from every precinct and every race,” she said. “It happens your councilwoman chose Precinct 6138 on Monday. We put all the cards back in the box, and it happens that we chose the same precinct. However, the counting team in the morning and in the evening was completely different.”
Several members of the canvassing board were concerned with the software that caused the error, but Coates said that was not the board’s problem.
“What we have to ask is, ‘Have the results presented to us by the Supervisor of Election been corrected?’” he said. “Everything I’m hearing tonight says that they have.”
Coates initially motioned to certify the most recent results and seat Margolis, Greene and Willhite for Tuesday’s council meeting.
But no other members of the board seconded the motion, eliciting jeers from the audience.
Coates amended his motion to certify the March 19 results subject to a hand recount. After some confusion, he clarified that once the recount was completed, an automatic certification would occur, negating the need for another meeting.
But Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Carmine Priore was concerned. “If we certify it automatically and there is a change,” he asked, “what can of worms are we opening?”
Kurtz explained that only if the hand recount shows that Margolis, Greene and Willhite were the winners would the automatic certification be triggered.
“The certification only becomes effective if the recount confirms [last] Monday’s tally,” he said.
The motion passed 4-0 despite protests from the crowd, which called for the new board members to be seated immediately.
Paglia said he thought the decision was fair, but he was unsure whether the board has the authority to order a hand recount.
“I don’t know if they have the legal ability to order a hand count,” he said. “The contract the village has with [Bucher] says that she has the ability to certify elections.”
Hostetler said she supported the board’s decision.
“I think the voters deserve confirmation that who is seated are the winners,” she said, “so as a village we can move forward.”
On Wednesday, several Wellington residents filed a lawsuit asking for a court order to speed up the recount.
Margolis and Greene, along with seven Wellington voters who supported Greene, Willhite and Margolis, filed lawsuits asking the court for an immediate order to hold a manual recount.
Margolis said he understood the board’s decision but wanted to see the votes recounted soon so Wellington can move on.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome, but I understand,” he said. “If that’s what the canvassing board wants, that’s OK. Let’s get it over with as soon as possible.”
Greene agreed. “I’m fine with [the recount],” he said. “I think it will bring closure to it.”
He added, however, that he doesn’t want to see the process dragged out. “If the canvassing board wants a hand recount,” Greene said, “we’re not just going to sit on our hands and wait.”
The election debacle has been to court once already this week. On Monday, March 26, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Robin Rosenberg denied a request for an injunction to prevent the canvassing board from certifying the March 19 results.
The motion for injunction was requested by voters Gaye Scarpara and Kathy Foster to prevent the board from certifying anything but the originally announced results of the March 13 election. Foster served as Wellington’s first mayor.
Kurtz told Rosenberg that he felt the injunction was preemptive, as the election results had not been certified yet.
“The canvassing board is charged with certifying the election results,” he said. “I think that we should allow the administrative board to make their decision before we begin the process.”
Kurtz said Monday that he was unable to speculate what the outcome of the Tuesday meeting would be, noting that they may choose to go to the court for advice. “They should be allowed to do what they are tasked with,” Kurtz said.
But attorney Glen Burhans, representing Scarpa and Foster, said that the canvassing board’s certifying of the election would be considered an illegal act. “The results have already been certified,” he said. “If anything, we should maintain the status quo. There is a process, and we are already in it.”
Rosenberg ultimately decided to let the canvassing board meet and make its decision.