The Chelsea City Council voted 6-3 on Monday night to look into irregularities in the voting process on the Nov. 3 City Election – an outstanding issue that embraced everything from non-profit conduct to racial identity to campaign etiquette.
Those voting in favor of Councillor Clifford Cunningham’s order were Cunningham, Paul Murphy, Joe Perlatonda, Leo Robinson, Paula Barton and Dan Cortell.
Those voting against were Councillors Brian Hatleberg, Matt Frank and Calvin Brown.
The order calls for the City Manager through City Clerk, to file a formal request with the Secretary of State to investigate numerous allegations of irregularities surrounding the municipal election.
After the order passed, Cunningham withdrew a second order calling for the Secretary of State to monitor future elections in Chelsea.
The orders and the related activities behind them, mostly activities performed by the Chelsea Collaborative or its employees on personal time, have set the political world in Chelsea on fire and distracted a great deal from the actual results of the election.
That said, there is enough of an issue that Councillors felt some action had to be taken.
At issue is everything from race to non-profit regulations to voter registration efforts.
“The conversation about race is a part of the overall issue that was the catalyst for the order,” said Cunningham. “The letter that went out to some voters said to vote solely for Latino candidates…I personally find that racist, reprehensible and disgusting. The order isn’t about that, though. It’s about voting irregularities on Election Day…If we have come so far since receivership, how will we as a community let a taxpayer-funded non-profit shirk the voting laws in order to amass a political machine to serve their own agenda – which is not the agenda of the entire city?”
The situation began when ‘Dear Friend’ letters, mentioned above, went out to several districts in the city. They were funded mostly by the campaign of Councillor Roy Avellaneda. Most were innocuous, but one letter in Spanish targeted Spanish-speaking voters and gave a list of preferred candidates endorsed by Chelsea Collaborative Director Gladys Vega.
The letters endorsed mostly Latino candidates – except for one African-American – but some also contained the Spanish phrase, “Vote for the Latino candidates on Nov. 3.”
That has been a dividing wedge in the community since the letters came out and since they became a major public issue over the last two weeks.
Councillor Dan Cortell said his problem with the actions of the Collaborative fell around the issue that they toed the line or crossed the line between endorsing candidates – which the organization is not allowed to do legally.
Members of the Collaborative have said they did their political activities on their own time, but Cortell said it could be hard for a normal resident to figure out what hat a Collaborative employee is wearing – given that they also perform local voter initiative work and Get Out the Vote work as well.
“My problem is it’s very, very hard to figure out what hat any individual is wearing at any given moment on any given day up until Election Day,” he said. “When member of the Collaborative knocks on your door one day for Get Out the Vote, another day for the voter initiative and another day for a political candidate, does the person who answered the door understand what hat they’re wearing any of those times. I don’t want to offend anyone, but probably not. It concerns me. There is not a sufficient enough delineation between what hat the individual is wearing…The Chelsea Collaborative does excellent work, but my request would be to stay away from that line and let people who put their name on the ballot fight the fight and whoever wins, wins.”
Councillor Paula Barton agreed with both councillors, saying she witnessed things at the voting polls that she questioned, and she also questioned the letters that went out.
Councillor Calvin Brown did not vote for the order, but said there were significant problems regarding race and the Collaborative campaigning. He gave much credit to the candidates who won, but said a conversation needs to be had to heal the community.
“They say they did this all the time and that it wasn’t new,” he said. “Not true. There was never a staff or group being used like an army out there…You can’t do that or should not be able to do that in a city like Chelsea. If we were candidates for the All American City now, we wouldn’t win. A lot of folks who made this an All American City were part of this. It’s eating at us. Now we’re hostile. This is dividing us. I don’t want to tarnish anyone’s victory or squash my colleague’s order, but we have to put an end here…We still need to have a conversation. It’s easy to get caught up in something. People got caught up in this.”
He specifically pointed out Avellaneda, who was in the audience, as his name had been attached to the matter of the letter.
Councillor Matt Frank said he wanted everyone to take a deep breath.
“As a City, I think we all need to take a collective breath,” he said. “I’m not saying they should be investigated or not, I’m saying as a biased board I’m not sure if this is the right place…If you step into a political fight, you should be expecting to get a push back, but this isn’t in my opinion the best venue for it.”
Whether or not the City Manager does forward the request is purely up to him, and the Council cannot compel him to do anything. Nor can they compel the City Clerk to act either.
Cunningham said the orders were largely symbolic, but he believed they made a statement.