By Katy Savage
After a recount, Rutland City finally has new School Board members.
The ballots were recounted Sunday, March 6 after a very tight race. Ten candidates battled for four open seats, with the third, fourth and fifth candidates getting within five votes or less of each other. But the recount didn’t change the four top spots.
Karen Bossi secured a spot on the board by five votes in the recount, besting Marisa Kiefaber, 1295-1290. Sarah Atkins Doenges finished third with 1,297 votes. Marybeth Lennox-Levins was the top vote-getter with 1,456 votes, followed by Courtney Collins with 1,442 votes.
The final tally showed Kiefaber was the only candidate not elected who was part of the Rutland Forward group, a progressive political group supporting both Board of Aldermen candidates and School Board candidates. Many of them have advocated for the Ravens mascot. Collins, Doenges, Lennox-Levins and Kiefaber were supported by that group along with successful Board of Aldermen candidates Anna Tadio, Michael Talbott and Matt Whitcomb.
Bossi, meanwhile, was part of Rutland Parents 4 All Students, a more conservative group. Bossi said she prefers the Raiders mascot and arrowhead logo. She was the only candidate elected from the four-person group. Other members included Bob Pearo, Heather Hauke, and Cindy Laskevich.
Local elections are non-partisan, and the involvement of advocacy groups with collective messages is new to the city.
“It was a very close race, it shows everyone’s vote matters,” Bossi said.
The recount happened after the city ran out of ballots for the first time in City Clerk Henry Heck’s 14 years as clerk.
Heck ordered 3,000 Australian ballots for Town Meeting Day, March 1, which is 500 more than usual, but he ran out before the polls closed. The town clerk’s staff photocopied about 215 ballots and counted those by hand.
Results were posted on the town website the next day but quickly taken down after Heck noticed an error.
Heck said Kiefaber’s fiance, Devon Neary, who is on the Board of Aldermen, called him after noticing a discrepancy on PEG-TV. Heck said a data input error in a spreadsheet for Ward 2 negatively impacted Kiefaber’s vote count.
Heck took responsibility for the confusion. He said he worked 17 hours on Town Meeting Day and was inundated with people wanting to know the results of the election.
“It’s still my job and it still has to be done correctly,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ve run out of ballots before. I will never run out of ballots again.”
The large turnout was likely caused by the Rutland City School Board’s ongoing mascot debate, which has caused division in the city. Board members changed the controversial Raiders mascot to the Ravens and then back to the Raiders recently. Some have called the Raiders mascot racist, while others said the mascot is an important part of Rutland’s history and identity. All of the School Board candidates for this election pledged to put the mascot issue behind them in previous interviews.
A total of 2,993 ballots were counted. Heck said about 100 absentee ballots weren’t returned and a number were spoiled.
“They can get chewed up pretty quickly,” Heck said.
There were a lot of people in Rutland for a March election, but it was not considered a big turnout for the city. The last presidential election saw an 80% voter turnout — about 8,000 voters, Heck said.
“This is one of those elections that was an anomaly,” Heck said.
Heck said smaller elections are usually more difficult. “Those are the ones that cause the most problems because if it’s not busy, it can create some issues,” Heck said. “The workers would like to be good and steady throughout the day.”
After Kiefaber requested a recount on Thursday, March 3, the city had two days to prepare. Sunday was the earliest a recount could have taken place. Heck said he wanted to get it over with to squash rumors and conspiracies brewing on social media.
“The sooner you can put things to bed and you move on to something else, those people go away,” Heck said.
It took the Board of Civil Authority about four hours to do the recount.
“My office looks like New Orleans after Katrina,” Heck joked on Monday after the tallies were complete.
Several candidates were at the recount to watch with their families. Bossi, who was at the City Hall for the recount, said she took issue with the fact that some Board of Civil Authority members are part of the Rutland Forward. She asked them to recuse themselves.
“They refused,” Bossi said.
Bossi said she was also concerned that several School Board candidates and Board of Aldermen candidates are related and participate on the Board of Civil Authority. Matt Whitcomb, who is part of Rutland Forward, is engaged to Courtney Collins. Michael Doenges is married to Atkins Doenges and Devon Neary is engaged to Kiefaber.
Whitcomb said he abstained before the recount on Sunday because Collins is his finance. Devon Neary and Michael Dogens also abstained since their significant others were in the races.
“I think everyone proactively abstained who knew they had a relationship,” Whitcomb said.
Board of Aldermen members Paul Clifford, Sharon Davis, Carrie Savage and Michael Talbott participated in Sunday’s recount, according to Heck. Savage and Talbott are both part of Rutland Forward.
Whitcomb said Bossi insisted anyone who didn’t support her view abstain.
“She seemed very comfortable with those who were supportive of her,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb was elected to his third term on Town Meeting Day, with 1,846 votes — the most among seven candidates seeking five seats.
Board of Aldermen incumbent members Talbott and Davis were also reelected along with Chris Ettori, a former alderman, and newcomer Anna Tadio.
“I was happy to see more people than we anticipated come out in an off year,” Whitcomb said.
Some have also been concerned about the amount of money raised by the groups. Rutland 4 Parents group raised about $2,000 for this election, Heck said. Rutland Forward, a registered PAC with the state, raised $5,185, according to a campaign finance report. Each of its seven candidates was given $571 for personal promotion. Whitcomb said he raised a total of $2,239 himself.
Davis, a longtime Board of Aldermen member, said the new onslaught of candidates from Rutland Forward will make the city more progressive.
“I think when a group like Rutland Forward pushes their candidate, they’re usually successful,” siad Davis. ‘I think people need to know who these groups are, what their agendas are, who’s behind them, who’s funding them and then vote from there. I think people need to not just vote with their faces but know what the agendas are going to be.”
The candidates have until Friday, March 11 to appeal the vote, but that seemed unlikely.
“Now that we have a clear vote count, I’m comfortable accepting defeat,” Kiefaber said in a text message.