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Calls Intensify For A Third Albany High Vote

Mounting discontent over the way voting was handled may force officials to hold another re-vote for the plan to rebuild Albany High School.

Calls have intensified for a third vote on a $180 million renovation plan for Albany High School after a troubled process last week.

Supporters of the project, a more expensive version of which failed in a November vote, cheered the winning margin while expressing concern over the process. Critics say it should be scrapped altogether.

The vote, run by the district, was stained by problems including confusion over polling places, many of which opened late or were not prepared to service voters, and a shortage of ballots. Albany Common Council Member Frank Commisso Jr. represents the city's 15th ward. He argues ballots made on photocopied forms on the fly and failure to send absentee ballots to qualified voters means it’s time for a third re-vote, one he suggests should be held under the auspices of the Albany County Board of Elections. "You know if the absentee ballots last time had gone 'no,' and they did in November, that doesn't justify not sending these folks absentee ballots. So I think when you look at the whole process that’s in place, whether you talk about the unsecured ballots, the unapproved ballots and the absentee ballots, you had weaknesses in all these areas, and the school district has conceded so much already. The school district has said that they were unprepared for the turnout they had on that day. The official recorded tally is about 7,700 voters. And who knows how many voters were turned away? When they came to polling places that didn't have ballots, how would they possibly vote? How would they have any confidence that their vote would be counted if they were told to vote on photocopied paper?"

Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners, a critic of the project, has been leading the charge to overturn the February 9 vote: last week he dashed a letter off to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia asking the referendum be invalidated.  "We've had a tremendous response from the public for our Albany Taxpayers.org webpage. We got over 271 seperate responses from voters who were outraged by the conduct of the election. The widespread violations and irregularities and problems with the conduct of the election lead us to believe that we'll be successful with the challenge to the actual election itself. As of now, the school board is gonna move ahead. They're happy with the outcome, while they have expressed dismay with the conduct of the election. A number of people who were 'yes' supporters in the election are equally upset about the conduct of the election. We've had responses from yes and no voters who are outraged at how badly this election was conducted."

Conners says he discussed the appeals process during a Friday evening phone conversation with Elia and expects to file an appeal that will result in a "favorable outcome."

Third ward councilman Ron Bailey counts himself as one who said “yes.”  "I supported the vote, but I don't support the disenfranchise that happened at the polling sites. I know that we're used to having things happen at our polling sites. One or two is good but when you have a whole city and the polling places are being affected with issues disenfranchise, with no ballots, polling places aren't open on time, the wrong machines in the wrong place, y'know there's some serious issues here. You just can't turn and walk away when you disenfranchise a whole city, all 15 wards."

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy issued a statement last week urging a re-vote. Assemblywoman Pat Fahy and Mayor Kathy Sheehan released a joint statement calling for an independent review of the vote and a determination as to whether that vote can stand. "I am very concerned about the way that that vote was conducted and the issues that have been raised by people who either arrived at polling places that weren't open or were at a polling place only to find that there were no ballots," the mayor said. "I think it really does call into question the vote, and, I don't believe that is something that should be reviewed neccessarily by the same school board and school administration that oversaw it. I think  it's important to get, if possible, and independent review and a determination as to whether or not that vote can stand or whether it needs to be invalidated."

Neither the Albany School Board nor district officials responded to requests for comment.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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