Election Commission admits mistakes

Board paves way for possible toss of liquor referendum results
Jan. 09, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

The Sevier County Election Commission voted Wednesday to have its attorney acknowledge in court that there were flaws in the voting on the Pigeon Forge Liquor by the Drink referendum, admitting issues that could cause Chancellor Telford Forgety to toss the results of the Nov. 6 election on that issue and call for a revote.

The election commission met late Wednesday afternoon, hours ahead of the start of proceedings today where Forgety would review a contest of election filed by the organization that campaigned against the measure. Shortly after the meeting started, the commission voted to approve a motion to “instruct our attorney to stipulate the results of the Pigeon Forge referendum are incurable with no finding of fraud.”

Forgety would have grounds to reject the election results if he finds the outcome is rendered “incurably uncertain,” or finds there were enough confirmed cases of fraud to justify tossing the result.

By conceding the outcome of the election was rendered uncertain due to improper votes, the commission appears to acknowledge the election should be retried. Forgety still must rule on the matter.

“It would appear that their vote this afternoon was to go ahead and stipulate to the chancellor that in the opinion of the election commission the result was incurably uncertain,” Election Commission attorney Dennis Francis said outside the meeting room.

The commission is acknowledging that some of the poll workers allowed ineligible voters to cast ballots in the city election, but is not acknowledging any claims of voter fraud, he said.

The recommendation was welcomed by Charles Rhodes, the Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF) member who originally discovered the discrepancies in the vote count.

According to election commission records, the vote was approved 1,232 to 1,132. Rhodes was the first person to call attention to the fact that the election commission could not account for about 300 votes out of that total as coming from Pigeon Forge residents or nonresident property owners who legally registered to vote in the city election; that is one of the major issues presented by CCCPF in the complaint.

Depositions of poll workers who worked at Pigeon Forge City Hall on election day indicate there was a great deal of confusion, and that some workers were allowing anyone who came to vote there vote in the city election. A number of the voters who use that precinct live in the county, but came to vote on the national and statewide general elections taking place the same day.

“They validated what we’ve been saying all along ... that is that the integrity of the vote has been skewed or there has been an issue with the integrity of the vote,” Rhodes said.

The decision was not as popular with Ken Maples, chairman of the group that campaigned in support of the referendum.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” the Forging Ahead chairman said. “We were hoping they would continue on their course to defend the lawsuit, (whether) by arguing the dismissal or going to trial.”

Forgety allowed Forging Ahead to join the lawsuit as a third party last week. While the chancellor ruled the group could not seek additional discovery or call new witnesses, the group has since changed attorneys and filed new motions. Knoxville attorney Greg Isaacs now represents the organization, and he filed a motion this week to dismiss the case because CCCPF did not name the City of Pigeon Forge as a defendant. According to his reasoning, Pigeon Forge will be affected by the decision and has an interest in the outcome, therefore the lawsuit should not have been allowed to proceed without the city being included as a party.

That motion still must be argued, along with some other motions that had been filed earlier.

Dennis Francis has filed a motion to dismiss CCCPF and Forging Ahead based on his assertion that their court filings don’t show they have the legal standing to take part in the case.

Lewis Howard Jr., who represents CCCPF, has filed a voluntary motion to dismiss Forging Ahead, saying they aren’t pursuing a case against Forging Ahead.

In the meantime, several Pigeon Forge restaurants have obtained licenses to sell liquor by the drink and started to do so.

A spokesperson for the state Alcoholic Beverage commission said Wednesday she knew of four restaurants selling liquor in the city.

It isn’t immediately clear what it might mean for those restaurants if Forgety tosses out the results of the liquor by the drink referendum. In an interview after the contest was filed, the interim director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission indicated that could depend on what the chancellor says in the ruling.

If Forgety doesn’t address the issue, ABC Interim Director Mark Bell said his office couldn’t revoke the licenses that had already been approved on its own. Officials have indicated the ABC could consider the issue again when the licenses come up for annual renewal.

Forgety has set aside two days to hear arguments on the case.

A precinct by precinct breakdown of the election day voting shows that 591 people at that precinct voted in favor of the referendum, while 552 voted against. That would mean a total of 1,143 voted on the referendum at the Pigeon Forge City Hall on Nov. 6, out of 1,448 total who voted at the precinct that day.

That total would also include property owners who had registered to vote in the city election. People who live outside the city but own property inside its boundaries can legally vote if they properly register before hand. CCCPF is also questioning whether a number of voters who took advantage of that rule did so properly.

Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. and actually started about 10 minutes late — but before it was set to start, commissioners could be seen through a window into the meeting room, sitting around the table with Francis.