Tuesday RTM meeting featured a vote on item 10, which was whether to approve a $500,000 grant to the Registrars Office from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL).
The town previously accepted a grant of $24,000 from CTCL in time for the 2020 election, which occurred at the height of the pandemic. The funds were used for personal protective equipment to keep poll workers and voters to be at a lower risk of contracting Covid.
The new electronic voting system was in use Tuesday night, and a representative from the vendor, Meridia, was present, as was town attorney Barbara Shellenberg.
At the time of the vote, Ms Voulgaris announced when the one minute voting window was open and then when it closed. RTM members voted, some remotely and others in person at Central Middle School. Some members may have started the meeting remotely and then joined in person.
The vote to approve the grant passed with a total of 210 votes – 104 in favor, 101 against and 5 abstentions.
After the announcement of the vote, there was a bit of a kerfuffle and members interrupted the moderator during discussion of Item 11 to say some people believed their votes had not been counted.
The evening had gone mostly smoothly up until that point, despite a week of meetings and emails characterized by a lack of civility.
Moderator Alexis Voulgaris started the meeting by urging people to exercise decorum and civility.
“What will not be tolerated tonight are ad hominem attacks,” Voulgaris said. “People have every right to debate the merits of the issues. But no one has the right to levy personal criticisms or attacks. Robert’s Rules is very clear.”
She quoted page 372, section 43-21: “The moment the chair hears such words as fraud, liar or lie used about a member in debate, he must act immediately and decisively to correct the matter and prevent its repetition.”
Brooks Harris, chair of the Finance Committee, said his meeting had been the most partisan and vitriolic discussion he’d seen, likening it to a soap opera.
“A member next asked the Registrars if a non-partisan agency funded by Trump gave the town a similar grant, would they accept it? (Democratic) Registrar Hegarty answered she would not because Trump is partisan. She further stated that she would be uncomfortable taking money from an organization in which the Koch brothers were involved. (Republican Registrar) Mr. DeCaro interrupted Registrar Hegarty to clarify that what she meant was that if the organization was non-partisan, of course they would support such a grant.”
“The discussion kind of degenerated from there,” Harris said.
“The debate was characterized by repeated interruptions and indelicate and personal comments. One speaker repeatedly interrupted, and I told them they were out of order,” Harris said. “One member called one of our guests a liar, which I assume is why the moderator cautioned people in this debate.”
“One alternate member accused another of being a conspiracy theorist, which I ruled pejorative, and asked the member not to do. The member repeated this several times and I warned if they could not follow the rules they would have to leave the meeting to cool off, although I’m not sure how to enforce that, as I am not a Navy SEAL. Finally the vice chair asked the member to refrain from ad hominem attacks and he relented.”
Mr. Harris said after the debate and name calling died down, the committee approved the item 7-5-0.
Richard Neuman from the Town Services committee said the Registrars had also spoken to his committee.
“We discussed the possible uses of the grant money to offset the cost of Early Voting, security, and handicapped access. We discussed the privacy of our data and what would be shared with the grantor,” Neuman said.
“It was pointed out that the Registrar’s office has no private information and that all is available to the public. The voter roll information includes, names, addresses, birth month and year. And how you voted, not who you voted for, but if and where you voted. This information is available to any town person who asks, for $35.00. As elected officials, if we’re running, we get it for free. You can get the entire state of Connecticut’s rolls for $200. So if the CTCL is trying to get our voter information for $500,000, they’re overpaying.”
Mr. Neuman said the Registrars had explained there were safeguards against the grant money being spent “with strings attached.”
“First, both Registrars – Republican and Democrat – must agree on what to use the money for. Second they must ask the BET to approve the spending and release the money. The Registrars pointed out that if this body would also like to approve any spending, they would be happy to come before us for approval.”
“We discussed the town attorney’s opinion that we can and do accept grants from both government and private groups, and encourage town departments to look for grants,” Neuman added.
Town Services voted 6 in favor, 3 against, 2 abstentions for 10 and 11.
Lucia Jansen with the Budget Overview Committee’s report said her committee voted against accepting the grant.
“Except during the extraordinary Covid pandemic when Connecticut municipalities, including Greenwich, accepted funds for absentee ballots as well as mask shields and other Covid costs, it has never been the case that a private non-profit funds our municipal elections.”
“The BOC was eager to learn how the $500,000 in funds would be spent in operating and capital expenditures, since the explanos made no mention, as is customarily done, with a grant of this size with a lot of discretionary spending,” Jansen said. “The BOC learned the Registrars of Voters had never even applied for the grant and they had filled out a form to be selected a Center of Excellence with the new CTCL program US Alliance for Excellence created 8 months ago with $80 million in funding.”
The BOC voted 8 against and 4 in favor of the grant.
Kip Burgweger, chair of Legislative and Rules, said his committee moved to amend the resolution to give the RTM final say over the use of the funds (in addition to the BET.)
Scott Kalb urged approval of the amendment.
“If we have oversight from both the BET and the RTM, to make sure the grant funds are spent safely and securely, why wouldn’t we accept these funds?” Kalb asked. “Having a high level of oversight should alleviate any concerns about how the grant funds would be allocated.”
Cheryl Moss, chair of district 8, spoke in support of the motion to amend. She said the proposed grant had brought out some of the worst behavior she’d seen since joining the RTM.
After thanking the registrars, she thanked Michael Spilo.
“My second thanks goes to Mr. Spilo for so adeptly showing us how our information is already available to anyone who wants to look for it. By sharing with all RTM members the party affiliations, political donations of a group of RTM members who support this grant, he has demonstrated that such information is readily available with a quick Google search.”
“The claim that somehow our privacy will be compromised through this grant is pure nonsense. This grant is for things that do not influence elections,” Ms Moss added.
Bill Lewis said the amendment was harmless but meaningless. “The amendment will give us a false sense of control and doesn’t address the fundamental problem: private money with lots of strings attached being pumped unnecessarily into our election process….Don’t be fooled into thinking it makes item 10 any less desirable.”
The vote on the motion to amend was 183 in favor; opposed 24; abstaining 4: (Total votes: 211).
Item 10 – $500,000 Grant from CTCL
The principal proponent of item 10 was Democratic Registrar Mary Hegarty who said, “Over the last week or so, misinformation has been shared about items 10 and 11 and we, registrars, have been personally attacked.”
She asked RTM members to put aside the “heated rhetoric,” and focus on facts.
“These grants are not about private funding of elections. In Connecticut the Secretary of State and the state legislature dictate how elections are to be conducted in in each of our state’s 169 towns. The voting equipment to be used is determined by the Secretary of the State. The grants have no bearing at all on this fundamental infrastructure.”
“We, in effect, have spending veto power over each other,” she said of herself and Republican Registrar Fred DeCaro. “Then the BET must approve the appropriation, and now the RTM voted to amend the resolution so that RTM approval of any appropriations is also required.”
Principal opponent of item 10, Henry Orphys, said the registrar’s office was not underfunded.
“To avoid the appearance of any impropriety or outside influence, I think we’re better off providing the funding for the registrar exclusively from tax paid by Greenwich residents or from state resources rather than to make make any needed improvements to infrastructure from outside not-for-profit money.”
He said that would prevent the appearance of any outside political influence in local elections and “keep out of Greenwich the type of partisan fighting over election results that unfortunately has arisen in other parts of the country.”
Orphys said he hoped the acrimonious tone of committee meetings over the previous week, and tone of language in emails sent via the RTM email system would not become the norm.
“Not accepting funds from this outside source is the best way to accomplish this,” he added. “If additional funds are needed by the Registrars’ office to comply with voting procedures mandated by the state or improve operations, those funds will either be provided by the state or the town.”
Republican Registrar Fred DeCaro summarized 11 pages of Q&A and 15 hours of public meetings into two minutes.
“Is there secret data? No. Are you sure? Yes. How can you be sure? Because freedom of information laws already make all of our work public. Is this a Trojan Horse? No. If you use grant funds to buy new locks, does the grantor get a key to your office? No. Is there any consideration of using this money to collect ballots? No. How about tabulating ballots? No. How about reporting results of the current election? No.”
He said both the BET and the RTM would have to approve any appropriations.
“Does this double the Registrar’s operating budget? No. Does this double your head count? No. Is this a bait-and-switch? No. Can you hire anyone you want to work on grant funded projects? No.”
“Does this grant require you to use any specific vendor? No. How many calls did you make to lobby individuals on this matter? Zero. Are you sure? Yes. How about emails? None.”
Former RTC chair Ed Dadakis warned against approving the grant from CTCL. “There is no transparency. We don’t know who is giving the money. It could be Mark Zuckerberg, or Donald Trump, or George Soros, or someone else.”
“Remember when we wouldn’t accept an anonymous donation for three e-bikes (for the police department) until the donor identified himself?” he asked. “Since we don’t know who the donors are, accepting the grant is wrong.”
“Our duty is not to just protect the integrity of elections,” Dadakis said. “It is to protect anything that may cause people to question the integrity of our elections.”
State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) who has spoken in favor of funding Nathaniel Witherell, the town owned nursing home, and to approve a grant from the state for the senior center said, “I trust elected officials, who incidentally are Republicans, to run an adequate allocation of resources. I urge we approve this. The partisan bickering is not worthy of this body.”
With all the criticism of CTCL Andrew Winston asked, “Is it possible it is exactly what it says it is: an organization that believes in voting infrastructure wherever it is. Is it possible the founders believe it will help one party, Democrats? Yes, it’s possible. Is it possible the CRC – the other think tank, founded by the Koch brothers – and the states that voted on this think this will help Democrats? Yes, that’s probably why they’re so pissed off. But there’s no evidence of that. There’s been study after study that getting voters out helps both parties.”
“You want to see that they are giving money to GOP-led districts. We have one really great data point, which is here. We are GOP-led,” he said. “We’ve been run by the GOP – the First Selectman, BET and BOE for 100 years.”
Jonathan Perloe said he believed essential responsibilities of government including elections should be funded by taxpayers or the users of services provided.
But, he said, “In my assessment, in this town there is a long history of favoring low taxes over public spending, so not everything many of us would like to see funded actually is. Our crumbling schools are a case in point.” (Central Middle School was condemned last February, and after being shored up was reopened. Plans are underway to build a new school.)
Perloe said accepting the grant was consistent with past decisions to use private money to enhance the public good.
“Aspersions cast on CTCL are without merit. The Anti-Defamation League labeled conspiracy theories connected to their grants as one of the leading false narratives of the 2022 mid-term elections,” Perloe added.
Former Republican BOE member Peter Sherr said he was a close personal friend of Republican Registrar Fred DeCaro and described him as one of the most intelligent, capable and competent people he knew.
“I have the utmost faith in Fred’s ability to manage this grant if you choose to accept it,” Sherr said. “But I’m going to advise you, don’t. This isn’t about Fred…You were asked to consider this grant on 18 days notice. It’s not much time to go through this.”
“What’s so disappointing about this is it’s all about this organization, CTCL. The question you should be asking is a policy question. Should Greenwich allow private money into the most sensitive part of its government?”
LWV president Sandy Waters said her organization, like CTCL, did not support political candidates.
“Like us, it is a 501(c)3. It’s mission is to connect Americans with the information they need to become and remain civically engaged, and make sure our elections are more professional, inclusive and secure.”
“The RTM represents 40,000 Greenwich voters. My hunch is they support a non-partisan decision to make our elections more efficient and effective as the state legislature acts to implement Early Voting that they approved by a radio of 68% in the November election,” Waters added.
Joe Solari held up a petition with 247 signatures of people opposed to accepting the grant funds.
“Does anyone remember the Brady Bunch episode where Greg Brady thought he had a great deal on a classic car that turned out to be a lemon?” he asked. “Remember his father Mike Brady’s advice? When someone offers you something that sounds too good to be true, he said caveat emptor– buyer beware. It was good advice for Greg Brady and it’s good advice for us.”
Aiden Wasserman, 16, said he’d volunteered as a poll worker in Greenwich. “There is certainly a need to update aging equipment and streamline processes. Greenwich voters overwhelmingly approved an Early Voting ballot measure last November. We know our Registrars cannot manage Early Voting with their current budget.”
“Our town has made public-private partnerships a priority for funding everything from our fire volunteer firefighters to our ambulance services,” he added.
Karen Fassuliotis said the perception that elections could be bought was reason enough to oppose the grant. “What’s the old adage? Perception is reality.”
“This grant request has already started the politicizing of our elections by the debate and arguments made by this body,” she said.
Lucy von Brachel said despite how professional and conscientious the Registrars of voters were, there were many opportunities for improving the voter and poll worker experience, and increasing voter turnout.
“I’ve yet to hear anyone describe in real terms how these grants could actually be used by the grantor to exert outside influence and undermine the integrity of our elections,” von Brachel said.
“All of this discussion about state legislatures trying to put a stop to grants like this falls flat with me,” von Brachel said. “Most of these legislatures are partisan. The people who run them are politicians. What carries more weight with me are the court decisions on cases brought against the grantor by partisan groups. These complaints have largely been thrown out as baseless.”
“The irony on all of this is that the vote tonight has involved outside organizations attempting to influence your votes,” she said, likely a reference to the email from Leora Levy to Kim Fiorello offering talking points written by Justin Riemer, chief counsel for the RNC that was leaked last week and sent to all 230 members of the RTM.
After the vote in favor of item was announced – 104 in favor, 101 against and 5 abstentions for a total of 210 votes – the moderator proceeded with comments on item 11, which concerned a smaller grant of $9,000+ from the same organization that would be a scholarship to cover Greenwich’s membership dues.
“I didn’t expected to be up here. I expected 10 to be defeated,” said Tina Volkwein. “As we speak, some of our members are alleging their votes were not counted on item 10….I just really urge you to vote no on this. Outside money involved in our elections is a bad idea.”
There was a lot of chatting in the auditorium and Ms Voulgaris asked people to take their conversations out in the hall.
Still the voices grew louder and then some people approached the moderator to claim some votes had not been counted on item 10.
“As you know, we don’t re-vote,” Voulgaris said. “I don’t know if there was operator error.”
Nancy Burke came to the podium to share a letter from Peter Tesei, but instead said her husband Duncan Burke’s vote had not been counted. “We have to do something about this…There are all sorts of flaws in technical data.”
Ms Voulgaris said Mr. Burke’s vote had indeed been counted. He voted against item 10.
Attorney Shellenberg said there would be an investigation into the facts.
Still some people demanded a re-vote.
Steve Katz moved that item 11 be postponed until March 23. The motion passed.
Ms Shellenberg instructed anyone who claimed there was an issue with their vote to contact the town clerk.
Carol Zarrilli suggested the town clerk email all RTM members to ask them each to report how they voted.
Ms Voulgaris said that would not be allowed. “They could potentially switch their vote,” she said.
“That’s why we need a re-do on item 10,” Zarrilli said, to a chorus of no’s.
Ms Voulgaris adjourned the meeting.
On Wednesday morning moderator pro tem Katherine LoBalbo said during her WGCH radio debrief that the Meridia system was used by the US House of Representatives and NASA, and that it made the voting process smoother, more efficient and more transparent.
She noted that the total number of votes (210) was just one less than the prior vote (211) on the amended resolution proposed by Legislative & Rules committee.
How Many Votes Could be Missing?
In fact, prior to item 10 there were numerous votes on other items with a total number of votes close to 210: For Item 4, postponing a vote on the nomination Bill Galvin for Wetlands, 210 people voted. On Items 14 & 15, 213 people voted.
On Wednesday, RTM member Anthony Moor pointed out in an email the irony of the situation.
“I’m so upset that a group which lobbied like rabid dogs to smear and confuse and create chaos in everyone’s minds to stop something so simple as improving voting infrastructure,” Moor said. “(They) immediately created chaos to overturn a vote made with technology designed to improve voting infrastructure.”
And so everyone waited Wednesday on tenterhooks to find out whether the vote will hold.
Around 1:30pm, town clerk Jackie Budkins emailed the 230-member body to say, “The Town Clerk’s Office is carefully and thoroughly reviewing Tuesday night’s votes on Item 10 of the RTM call. We are working closely with Meridia our electronic voting platform vendor on this matter. We appreciate your patience as we determine the facts.”
RTM Controversy: Zuck Bucks, Conspiracy Theories, Leaked Emails and a $500,000 Private Grant
Jan 16, 2023