With more than 4,000 signatures gathered, organizers of the drive to let the public vote on whether to create a chief operating officer thought they had overcome the final hurdle.
Then they learned Monday that the city might require they go back and make sure every petition circulator signs the paperwork in the presence of a notary public.
“I don’t really see it as a big deal,” said Dale Clift, the city attorney, because there’s still plenty of time before the July 31 deadline for submitting the signatures. Only a little less than 3,200 valid signatures are required.
But two of the organizers of the drive, Republican city Councilor Ken Cockayne and businessman Craig Yarde, said the new requirement poses massive headaches and denounced them as an unfair dirty trick to try to stymie the referendum.
“This is absolutely unfair,” Yarde said.
Because some of the petition circulators are on vacation, Yarde said, “I will not be able to count hundreds of signatures of citizens who signed” in good faith.
Cockayne said that he's upset that the city is "changing the rules in the middle of the game" just days before the deadline.Clift said the decision about whether to require a notary is City Clerk Therese Pac’s call. Pac was unavailable Monday.
Clift said, though, that Pac wants the petitions witnessed legally to ensure that those signing the petitions are aware they are attesting to the truth of a statement that says the circulator personally saw each of the signatures and had reason to believe the identity of those who penned their names.
“I think she’s well within in her rights to be cautious in this matter,” Clift said. “It’s a caution on her part to take a step to ensure that these petitions are above board and without question, that the circulators meet the qualifications.”
Cockayne said there were between 75 and 100 people who circulated petitions. Some gathered only a few names while others gathered hundreds.
He said that had Pac told the organizers weeks ago that the forms would need to be notarized, he would have had no trouble with it. In fact, he said, he is a notary and would simply have done the appropriate steps as the petitions were turned in.
Instead, organizers have to try to track down each circulator and have them sign again in the presence of a notary.
“Things like this, I believe, are what turns people off,” Cockayne said. He said that ordinary citizens stepped up to help by signing the petitions or circulating them and now their efforts may not be included at all.
“This just puts a sour taste in peoples’ mouths and they say ‘why even get involved?’. This is what is turning people off about our city and Bristol,” Cockayne said.
“This is a great example of why we need a chief operating officer,” Yarde said. “That's what you get when you have 21 department heads doing whatever they want because they don't have anyone who's managing them.”
Yarde said that people “should call Mayor [Art] Ward and tell him to manage his people and let the citizens of Bristol decide if they want a COO rather than trying to put roadblocks” in the way.
The Charter Revision Commission, which recently completed its work, recommended the city create a chief operating officer post to handle administrative oversight and provide long-term planning.
Supporters of the position said it would bring greater efficiency to City Hall and save taxpayers money in the long run.
But Ward and four of the six city councilors rejected the idea. They said it wouldn’t help or it would cost too much money.
If the council had approved it, the public would have the final say on the proposed charter change. It would have been on the November 4 ballot.
If the petition drive succeeds, voters will still get the chance to have the last word.
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