Three Pell Manor poll workers were reassigned yesterday after District 1 Councilwoman Eileen Fuoco filed a complaint with the Johnston Board of Canvassers, alleging a conflict of interest for William Santilli, Anna Murphy and Martha Church.
The Board voted unanimously to move the poll workers to a polling place outside of the voting district, but as they were leaving the hearing, all three said they planned to withdraw their names.
“I figured it was fixed. Everything was all decided before we came in here,” said Santilli, who said he could not work at another polling location due to his disability. He requires a walker to get around but lives at Pell Manor.
The alleged conflict involves their positions within Pell Manor. Santilli is the president of the Pell Tenants Association, Murphy is the cousin of a Johnston Housing Authority staffer and Church is the resident member of the JHA Board.
“This committee should really think about rearranging some of the people. I think it’s really unfair that people who live in the facility ... there’s undue pressure, I think,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena.
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Richard DelFino appeared before the Board of Canvassers and said no accusations were being made. He said his concern is avoiding the appearance of impropriety or opening the town up for litigation.
“I don’t mean this to be the case, but I’m suggesting there could be intimidation. There are other things that could take place that would make the election questionable,” he said. “I’m not suggesting there is any intent here. It’s the potential appearance of impropriety that the councilwoman is suggesting.”
His suggestion, along with Councilwoman Fuoco’s, is that those three workers still be allowed to work the polls, but at a precinct outside of District 1. The implication is that they could influence voters at Pell, but Fuoco’s opponent, fellow Democrat Ed Cardillo, believes there are other issues at play; namely, that these workers support his bid for Town Council.
“They’re using the system to attack elderly and disabled people. Is that what this campaign is about? It should be about people who have the right to choose and support whomever they want without fear of retaliation,” he said.
Santilli was open about his support of Cardillo this week, but questioned why that made him ineligible to work the polls at Pell. This would have been his first time as a poll worker.
“Where’s my [freedom of speech], if I can’t say I want to work for Eddie Cardillo?” he asked. “I wasn’t saying it to anyone working in the polls. Go up to Pell Manor and ask how many people I told to vote for Eddie Cardillo – nobody.”
Murphy too questioned why her relationship to a JHA property manager would lead anyone to believe that she could, or would, influence voters. She and Church both worked the primary and general elections in 2010, at which time no complaints were filed.
“I was related to Carol Costa two years ago, too; what difference does it make this year?” she asked.
The meeting became heated, with both sides repeatedly standing up and making comments before the BOC. Afterwards, Murphy said she felt threatened during the course of the meeting, due to people speaking out of turn and addressing her directly, rather than through the chairperson.
Polisena alleged that Santilli made a comment to a town employee that he would be working for Cardillo either way – inside or out of the polls, which prompted DelFino to request immediate action.
“If he made that statement, we’re beyond the potential. Then we have a conflict,” he said.
Cardillo countered that constituents told him that Fuoco wanted the poll workers moved for having his signs on their property or voicing their support for her opponent.
Both counts are hearsay, said Chairman Joseph Falvo. Falvo disputed the claim of foul play, and said the Board’s only motive is to ensure a fair election.
“We’re not for no one; we just want to run the elections fair and square,” he said. “We just want to prevent any legal action or impropriety as far as the election goes.”
If the poll workers were not reassigned, Polisena said he planned to have a police officer present at Pell for the duration of the election. Generally, police patrol areas outside polling precincts, but do not often stay at one location for long. He said Fuoco requested police presence in that case, and he agreed with her argument.
“Everyone has a right to support who they want to support, but as mayor, I’m concerned with any hint of impropriety,” he said. “It sends the wrong message.”
Fuoco asserted that her opponent would be likewise filing a complaint if it were her close supporters working the polls.
“I think this would be flipped around if I had my daughter Kimberly or my husband Ken sitting in Simmons Village,” she said. “I don’t want to remove them; I want to move these three to another precinct. It’s not about whom they’re supporting; it’s a conflict because they live there.”
The Board of Canvassers, at the request of Chairman Falvo, asked Assistant Solicitor Gina Lemay for her opinion on whether or not the board was within their rights to reassign poll workers, provided they receive the same pay promised to them with their Pell Manor assignment. Lemay said it was “entirely in the board’s discretion.”
The Board voted unanimously to reassign the workers, but Falvo conceded after the meeting that they would have to find replacements in the wake of the three individuals’ decisions to pull out their names. There are 13 polling locations in the town, with four to six poll workers at each site. The local BOC currently does not have a list of alternates, but Falvo said he was confident that they would be ready come Tuesday.
“I’m sure we’ll get somebody,” he said.