Knox Dems deny GOP nominee for town board a place on the ballot

Ken Saddlemire

KNOX — The Nov. 8 election may be almost four weeks away, but town Democrats have already scored a victory.

They have successfully petitioned in Albany County State Supreme Court to kick from the ballot the Republican nominee for a town board seat, leaving their own nominee the lone major-party candidate.  A third-party candidate — a current town board member — made a decision to live abroad too late to have his name removed from the ballot.

On the surface an instance of inter-party warfare, the political drama may be more accurately described as the playing out of intraparty divisions: the Republican nominee whose name is now off the ballot is an enrolled Democrat.

The disappointed office seeker, Ken Saddlemire, is not taking the reversal lying down. He told The Enterprise Wednesday night that he intends to stay in the race as a write-in candidate.

He said he sees the action of the Democratic Committee as another instance of “the old guard hanging on” as change comes to the town.

“I think it’s petty what they did,” he said of those who filed the suit. “There are underlying issues but I am not going to stoop that low.”

“It’s time for the party to have  a little openness in what it’s doing….The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and now I am more determined than ever. I am really passionate about this.”  

A party divided

Saddlemire was nominated by the town Republican caucus on Sept. 18.  The next evening, the Democratic caucus met to choose between  him  and Dan Hanley as their nominee. Hanley’s name was placed in nomination by Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, a town resident. Saddlemire was nominated by Vasilios Lefkaditis, the town supervisor, a Democrat who won election last year on the conservative line after the Democratic caucus backed the long-time incumbent instead.

Neither Hanley, a special-education teacher at Shalmont High School, nor Saddlemire, a dairy farmer, has run for public office before. By paper ballot, the Democratic caucus gave the nod to Hanley by a vote of 84 to 52.

By the following Monday, Dee Woessner — a member of the town’s Democratic Committee and of the town’s  Conservation Advisory Council — was in court. She was there, she told The Enterprise, on behalf of the committee to ask  Acting Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin to invalidate the Republican nomination on the grounds that the rival party had failed to give proper public and legal notice of its intention to hold a nominating caucus on Sept. 18.

In a judgement handed down Wednesday, Oct. 19, Judge Platkin agreed and Saddlemire was stricken from the ballot as a consequence.

The grounds of the suit may have been technical, but its motive had more to do with the current turbulence in town politics than with procedural nit-picking.

“The town supervisor tried to get Saddlemire’s name on both lines of the ballot,” Woessner told The Enterprise. “He arranged this,” she said, referring to the Republican nomination of Saddlemire.

Lefkaditis has been at odds with the other town board members since he ousted  Michael Hammond to win the post. The board is entirely Democratic, although Councilman Eric Kuck,  an outspoken critic of Lefkaditis, formed his own party, Unify Knox.  Kuck is set to resign his seat on the town board by year’s end; it’s his seat that will be filled in the general election, for the remainder of Kuck’s unexpired term.

Lefkaditis, who has been town supervisor since Jan. 1, has generated change and controversy in his nine months in office.

Town Republicans also seem be  less than unified. Last month, Deborah Busch told The Enterprise that she is the party’s interim chair.  Days after the GOP caucus, she said that it hadn’t yet taken place and that the Republicans would never back a Democrat. More recently, Patricia Gage, who presided at the Sept. 8 caucus, said that Busch is no longer interim chair.  Asked if the Republicans in Knox seems to be in disarray, Board of Elections Republican  Commissioner Rachel Bledi said that seems to be the case.

The case

The legal claims that carried the day for the Democrats — and the counterclaims by the Republicans that did not— all centered on events in Town Hall on Thursday, Sept. 8.

New York State Election Law requires that a party file notice of intent to convene a caucus  at least 10 days before the date of the caucus, a requirement which made Sept. 8 the last day on which the Republican Party could meet the filing deadline to caucus on Sept. 18.   The law requires that the notice be filed with the local town clerk as well as with the county’s board of elections.

An unnamed envoy of the Republican Party came to Town Hall the morning of Sept. 8 to file the caucus notice with the town clerk. But the town clerk office is closed on Thursdays. The envoy taped the notice to the town clerk’s  counter window and left.

Town Clerk Tara Murphy was not there  but the bookkeeper and the supervisor were there that day.

According to Lefkaditis, the bookkeeper time-stamped the document as received at 9:45 a.m., Sept. 8. And he says he emailed the town clerk, with the time-stamped document attached, the same afternoon. That email, according to court documents,  was sent at 2:44 p.m. but was not received by the clerk until after 5:00 p.m., the latest allowable time for filing.

“It would not have been realistic to try to track the clerk down,” Lekkaditis said.

Murphy, a Democrat, told The Enterprise, “They just taped the notice to my window, the same notice they had been posting around town.’   Election law also requires posting of the caucus notice in at least 10 public places, as well as in a newspaper.

“That [taping to the window] does not constitute a filing,” she said. “They [the Republicans] have been filing for years and should know it doesn’t,” she said.

Murphy is also the secretary of the Albany County Democratic Committee. She and the supervisor have been embroiled recently in a serious spat over her minutes of an August special town board meeting.

Not properly filed

The court ruling agreed with the Democrats  that “notice of the party caucus was not timely filed with the Town Clerk.”

The judge ruled that attorneys for the Republican respondents to the suit — Patricia Gage; Tracy Salisbury, the caucus secretary; and Bledi —  “have not shown anything in law authorizing a town supervisor to receive or accept an election law filing, even in the absence or unavailability of the town clerk.” He also ruled against their contention that the email constituted an “electronic filing.”

The ruling also states that “contrary to respondents’ apparent suggestion, there is certainly no basis to conclude that the town clerk engaged in purposeful behavior intended to frustrate the ability of a political party to nominate a candidate for office.”

The court’s conclusion was that, because the caucus notice was not filed by 5:00 p.m. on Sept. 8, “the court is constrained to declare invalid the nomination of the respondent-candidate,” Ken Saddlemire.

Weighing-in

In comments to The Enterprise  made shortly before the ruling was issued, Lefkaditis said, “Any attempt to block voters’ choice is inappropriate and an affront to the democratic process.”

And Bledi, also shortly before the ruling, said, “You can’t deny access to the ballot just because the town clerk office doesn’t happen to be open that day.”

But Dee Woessner said after the ruling, “It makes us feel we did the right thing.”

Bledi speculated that maybe the town Democrats are concerned that Kuck may pull away too many votes, and so sought the elimination of the “Republican” nominee.

But an event that occurred back in 2003 suggests that this may have been payback time.

Before Knox voters went to the polls that November, the Republicans successfully sued to remove the entire Democratic slate from the ballot, citing improperly filed paperwork.

Updated, Oct. 7, 2016, to reflect Knox Councilman Eric Kuck's changed plans, no longer moving with his family to the Netherlands.

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