Registrars defend performance as selectmen review critical report
Updated 5:12 pm, Thursday, March 19, 2015
The committee that reviewed last year's local election process presented its report to the Board of Selectmen Wednesday, while acknowledging the town can't force the registrars of voters -- whose rocky relations were cited as the source of many of the problems -- to implement any of the recommendations.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau proposed the committee, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, after complaints from voters about being given wrong ballots, polling stations that opened late and the length of time it took to get election results.
Committee Chairwoman Catherine Albin said the panel's recommendations included making sure poll workers all attend the same training sessions; that a uniform moderator's log be adopted; a clear chain of command be established among elections workers, and differently colored ballots be used in polls with multiple districts.
But, the report concluded, "Through the review process the committee has found the breakdown in the ability of the registrars to work professionally and collaboratively, directly impacted the November 2014 election process in Fairfield. Their inability to train poll workers together resulted in misinformation and misunderstandings that caused mistakes. These preventable errors were not limited to major election issues, but also affected the day to day operations of the registrar office."
Republican Registrar Roger Autuori and Democratic Registrar Matthew Waggner have worked on separate floors in old Town Hall after an incident just prior to the 2013 election, when Waggner accused Autuori of assault. Autuori was charged with disorderly conduct and given accelerated rehabilitation by a Superior Court judge. Since then, Autuori complained to police about Waggner because Waggner had taken down a sign indicating Autuori's office had been relocated to the building's second floor. Waggner said the sign was taken down because it had been glued to the wall.
The registrars basically answer to no one after they attain office since they are elected, without opposition, by virtue of their nomination by their respective political parties. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill recently proposed changing the registrars' status, making it a civil service position, with each municipality having only one such official.
"I think there are some very good recommendations here," Selectman Sheila Marmion said. However, she added, those recommendations are moot if the two registrars cannot work together in a professional manner.
Albin also passed out a memo from Autuori and Waggner presented his response to the report after the meeting had ended. Waggner said he'd been told he'd be able to address the selectmen because he said Albin "acknowledged the flaws in this report when brought to her attention" and told him the only way to correct the record would be to appear at the meeting. Tetreau said the selectmen do not take public comment on reports, but accepted Waggner's written statement.
Autuori's memo said there was insufficient staff on the Democratic side to cover election day registration/voting, so Waggner had to use his deputy and assistant, who Autuori said should have been addressing other issues in the main office. He said there was also insufficient staff on Waggner's side available to deliver absentee and same-day registration ballots, causing some districts to receive those votes almost an hour after the polls closed and delaying final tallies.
According to Autuori, he said Waggner gave confusing instructions to moderators on what scanners to use for same-day registration and absentee ballots, and changed those instructions the morning of the election.
"The Democrat Registrar has difficulty in recruiting poll workers and does not match the workers' capabilities to their assignments," according to Autuori.
For his part, Waggner's response was critical of the elections committee's process, saying it was not structured in a way that allowed the members to gain an understanding of the election process and limited the information they considered by not allowing public comment at meetings or contacting poll workers.
The committee did issue a request for comment from the public and set aside a meeting specifically to hear from voters. A handful of people attended. The committee also would, at times, specifically ask questions of either one or both of the registrars during its meetings.