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Catherine Nugent Panepinto elected to Buffalo Board of Education, Williams and Rumore ask for corrections

On Tuesday, the Erie County Board of Elections released the final count in the election for the North District seat on the Buffalo school board: Attorney Catherine Nugent Panepinto, the only candidate whose name appeared on the ballot, survived a vigorous write-in campaign mounted by retired Buffalo Public Schools teacher Fred Yellen, who had the support of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. The final count, after 724 valid write-in and absentee ballots were counted, was 811-610. The total of 1,421 votes cast made the North District turnout second only to turnout in the the Park District, where city inspector Lou Petrucci ran away from his two competitors, Kevin Becker and Gerald Quinn. (The final count: Petrucci, 921; Quinn, 382; Becker, 132.) But the total turnout was, as usual, embarrassingly low—just over four percent of eligible voters in Buffalo showed up at the polls.

One local political wag claims numerous handwritten votes in the North District illustrated the confusion that often attends attempted write-in campaigns. There were votes, he said, for “write in” and for “the write-in.” There were also write-in votes for just “Fred” and for “Van Every,” indicating that some North District voters were not ready to bid goodbye to school board member Donald Van Every, who is retiring from that seat for a second time. There was at least one write-in vote for Ralph Hernandez, who in fact represents the city’s West District on the school board. (There were also, our source claimed, a couple handwritten votes for this writer, who does not live in the North District—and who, if nominated, would not have run, and if elected, would not have served.)

We wrote about the confusion surrounding write-in ballots last week, in the aftermath of the May 1 voting (“The Write-off Vote,” Artvoice v6n18). That article prompted an approving letter from an election inspector in the North District (see page 4 to read it) and a nice phone call from Phil Rumore, who will win an election of his own this month—he is running unopposed for another two-year term as president of the BTF, which he has headed for 26 years. Rumore liked the piece but quibbled with the assertion that “the BTF acknowledged that there were enough valid signatures to put [Central District candidate Jayne K. Rand] over the 500-voter threshold to get on the ballot.” The BTF never acknowledged that Rand had enough signatures on her nominating petition, Rumore said. The record stands corrected, though the point remains the same: It was the ongoing challenge by Grassroots operatives that knocked Rand off the ballot in the end, not the BTF’s less vigorous challenge.

Superintendent James Williams called, too, and at first he sounded angry. “What does this mean?” he snapped, and started to read the beginning of the article: “‘The intrigue began early on Tuesday morning, when Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams reportedly called in to the Erie County Board of Elections office to complain he’d had difficulty casting a write-in vote…’”

He then skipped to the next paragraph, which speculated that Williams, who lived in the Central District, must have been trying to vote for Rand, who was a write-in candidate.

“Where do you get this stuff?” he said. “Who told you I called the Board of Elections? You don’t know who I voted for. Nobody knows who I voted for.”

Williams sounded fit to be tied at first, but the anger quickly evaporated. In fact, Williams said, he did not call the Board of Elections but rather asked the election inspectors at his polling place on Delaware Avenue if there were instructions available on how to write in a candidate’s name. He was surprised that there were not. He never called the Board of Elections.

Williams went on to express dismay that so few voters in Buffalo seem to care about school board elections and agreed with the article’s basic premises: that write-in voting is confusing, and that Buffalo’s school board elections ought to be reformed so that voters have an opportunity to get to know the candidates and the issues. As it stands, the whole process unfolds in about a month.

Williams was most upset at the supposition that he had voted for Rand. He said members of his staff and school board members had told him about the article, which he hadn’t read (“I don’t like free papers, I like to pay for my news,” he explained). He said they believed, based on the article, that he had voted for Rand, and he said that could cause him trouble with both the new and old board members, on whose support his school reform agenda depends. When this writer suggested that this confusion might be evidence of the reading comprehension problem that he has argued is at the core of the city’s education problems—that anyone should be able read that soft lead-in to the article and understand that it was just snarky speculation used to introduce the real subject of the article—Williams agreed that maybe that was so.

But for the record: AV has no idea who Williams voted for on May 1.