The tax-levy question voters in the Jefferson County Public School District are marking on their ballots may be moot.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Brian Edwards has ruled that the tax-recall petition challenging the increase did not have enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot.
“[T]his Court must conclude that the [Jefferson] County Clerk erred in its decision to validate and certify that the petition contained the necessary number of valid signatures required to place the tax recall question on the ballot,” Edwards’ Friday order reads.
The 9.5% tax increase is already on the ballot, and many voters have already weighed in on the issue through absentee ballot or early voting. Edwards’ has ordered those votes, and ones cast on Nov. 3 “retained but not tabulated.” His ruling is subject to appeal.
Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) President Brent McKim welcomed the decision.
“This is an incredible day for our community, but especially an incredible day for our students. The future is much brighter today because of this decision,” McKim said speaking outside of JCPS central office Friday afternoon.
“I thank everyone in this community who stepped up and said, ‘Yes for JCPS,'” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said, referring to the “Yes For JCPS” campaign carried out by a coalition of local tax-increase supporters.
“I look forward to continuing making this case. As we move forward, implementing the plan, we will ask the community to hold us accountable for every cent that we spend,” he said.
The tax at issue is an increase of 7 cents per $100 of assessed value passed by the Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBE) in May. Because the increase amounted to more than a 4% hike, it was subject to referendum if opponents could gather 35,517 signatures on a recall petition. Opponents, led by the Anchorage resident and Louisville Tea Party President Theresa Camoriano, circulated an online petition through a website. The Jefferson County Clerk’s office certified around 38,000 signatures.
JCTA, along with JCPS, challenged the validity of the petition after a review by the teachers’ union found the county clerk certified hundreds of duplicate signatures and many signatures with wrong addresses and birth dates. Later, a web developer hired by JCTA found the clerk certified thousands of erroneous signatures, sometimes even after the clerk’s office had discovered and noted the error.
“[T]he Clerk’s office inexplicably ignored its own findings that 2,376 of those signatures contained errors and allowed those entries to be included in its final number of certified valid entries,” Edwards’ order reads.
The web developer hired by JCTA also found evidence the petition organizers altered voters’ information to help the petition pass muster.
“It is impossible for this Court to conclude that a petition containing the aforementioned errors can be deemed compliant with the requirements of [state statute],” Edwards’ order reads.
“In addition, deficiencies involving alleged misconduct and unauthorized altering of signature entries call into legitimate question the veracity of the entire petition.”
Edwards took particular issue with the fact that Camoriano encouraged hundreds of people to sign the online petition more than once.
“Perhaps most concerning is the clear attempt of The [petition] Committee to submit multiple entries for individual citizens. These are not insignificant concerns that can be ignored, and they should not have been,” the order reads.
Camoriano sent out a mass email asking signers to resubmit their signatures because of issues with missing information. She assured voters she would remove duplicates. But she left in more than 900.
The judge also ruled against the petition committee on their counterclaim that the school board illegally approved the tax increase before the property assessment values had been completed.
“[T]he Court held that the Committee had failed to establish that JCBE had not complied with the legal and procedural prerequisites in [state statute],” he wrote.
The petition committee is planning to appeal, according to an email sent from Camoriano.
“We gathered enough signatures on the petition, as certified by the County Clerk, and JCPS and JCTA did not find enough duplicates or other real problems to justify throwing out the petition,” Camoriano wrote.
“After all that effort on the part of citizen volunteers, following legal procedures and gathering enough signatures, the people should have the right to vote on the tax hike and not have their voices silenced,” the email reads.
Camoriano said the group is also planning to ask state legislators to change the law so that any tax increase over 4% will automatically go to referendum, without the need for a recall petition.