A recall petition seeking an election to remove Annette Acre from the Mapaville Fire Protection District Board of Directors has been certified and a recall election is seemingly headed for the Nov. 6 ballot.
However, district officials say they plan to file a lawsuit challenging the petition and blocking the election.
“The letter went out today to the district, calling for the election on Nov. 6,” said Jeannie Goff, chief election clerk at the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, on Aug. 10.
Filings for candidates to fill the seats opened Aug. 14 and will close Aug. 28, she said.
“We have to proceed unless we get an order from the court to stop,” Goff added.
The Mapaville board voted 5-0 in a July 30 closed session to pursue the lawsuit in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Mapaville Fire Chief Andy Brown said Aug. 14 the suit was still being prepared by the district’s attorney, Floyd Norrick.
“We met with him, and he hopes to have it done by the end of this week (Aug. 17),” Brown said.
Acre, along with the board’s four other members, voted in favor of suing to block the election.
“I consulted with our attorney about whether it was appropriate for me to abstain,” Acre said. “He said it wasn’t necessary, and I thought it was important for the vote to be unanimous.”
Brown said there are numerous problems with the petition.
“There are errors and misrepresentations in the way the petition was represented to people,” Brown said. “They (those gathering signatures) collected while in (district) uniform, some while on calls, some when they were here for training.”
Brown said there also were several pages of the petition with notarized dates that don’t jibe with the signature dates.
“All these discrepancies will be brought out in this suit,” he said.
Wendy Cauley, a former firefighter with the district, filed the petition March 26 with the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, and signatures were collected through the end of July. It sought to force an election to fill the remainder of Acre’s six-year term, which expires in April 2021.
“I want it on the ballot,” Cauley said. “I did my part to protect the community, and I am done with it. Let the people decide.”
The recall petition alleges Acre failed to post or incorrectly posted meeting notices; failed to record or mis-recorded meeting minutes; and refused to provide information, such as minutes and financial statements, until presented with a Sunshine Law request.
Acre challenged the petition’s accusations.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if there was any truth to it, but there’s nothing in that petition that is true,” she said. “I’ve done nothing but my job. People who have known me for 40 years or longer signed it (the petition), not knowing it was about me.”
Brown said some of the people who signed the petition were misled.
“We know of some people who say they weren’t allowed to view the allegations or Annette’s response to them,” he said. “Some were told they were signing a petition of support for Reed.”
In May, former longtime district volunteer Chief Darryl Reed was fired, and Brown was hired to serve as the volunteer chief. Reed had filed a lawsuit March 15 against the district alleging a number of Sunshine Law violations and seeking punitive damages.
Brown said district officials have heard from people who say they wouldn’t have signed the petition if they had known it was calling for Acre’s removal from the board.
He said some of those people say they will sign affidavits to that effect for the lawsuit. However, when asked, Brown did not provide any names to the Leader.
“People are reluctant to have their name in the newspaper, frankly, for fear of reprisal,” he said.
County Clerk Randy Holman said his office’s sole responsibility was to verify that those who signed the petition are registered voters in the district, and that each page contains a notarized statement attesting that the petitioner actually witnessed the signatures being collected on the dates recorded.
“All we do is validate them. I don’t have any enforcement authority over how they were collected or verified,” Holman said. “I think there may be some grounds that could cause the petition to be challenged, but I can’t determine whether a judge would uphold it.”
There are specific state statutes governing recall election petitions in fire districts. State law requires a number of signatures equaling 25 percent of district voters who voted in the 2016 election for governor. That number for Cauley’s petition was 505.
When it was first turned in to Holman’s office, the petition was deemed “insufficient” – meaning it did not contain enough valid signatures. “According to statute, they had 10 days to make it sufficient,” Holman said. “The group came back with additional names. They actually got two bites at the apple.”
The final signature count was 641, and Holman said on Aug. 2 his office had certified 510 of them.
Of the 131 signatures ruled invalid, most were from people who are not registered to vote or who do not live in the Mapaville district.
Holman said state law dictates that he must schedule an election between 45 and 120 days from certifying a petition, so scheduling the recall election as part of the Nov. 6 general election made the most sense.
“The (Mapaville) taxpayers are going to pay for this election, and it will be much cheaper for them to do it as part of an existing election rather than to hold a special election on its own,” he said Aug. 2.
Those wanting to file for the seat in the recall election would need to do so at the County Clerk’s Office, rather than at Mapaville district headquarters like in a regular election.
Acre apparently is eligible to run and said Aug. 9 she “absolutely” planned to.
“My reading of the state statute is that I have no reason to believe she can’t file for the seat,” Goff said.
Holman also said Acre should be allowed to continue to sit on the board until after the election results are certified and accepted by the Mapaville board and the winner is sworn in.
“Just because there are enough signatures on a petition to call for an election doesn’t take you off the board,” he said.
Ballot deadline looming
Many of those points will become moot, however, if the district succeeds in blocking the election and Acre simply serves out her term as elected.
“If (the recall election) gets stopped, the district’s only cost will be the cost of publishing the candidate filing notification,” Goff said. “And that’s minimal, probably 50 bucks or so.”
Until the district files its lawsuit, plans will go forward for the recall election.
“In the event there is a court order to block the recall, it would have to come in time for us to get new ballots printed for the area that affects Mapaville,” Holman said. “I’m thinking that would be around Sept 10. It’s a big election; we have to print all the ballots for every race in the county and we’re in a queue with all the other counties waiting to get their ballots printed. We’ll hold off as long as we can, just in case.”
Holman said he expects the county judicial system would work to help speed things along.
Holman and Goff said successful recall petition drives – ones that lead to an election – are rare, and not just in Jefferson County.
“We’ve never had a recall election since I’ve been here,” said Goff, who has worked for the County Clerk’s Office since 1986.
“I talked with a lot of different people around the state, and no one I spoke with was familiar with it,” Holman said. “We’re doing this on a step-by-step basis, just following the statutes to make sure everything is correct. We’re having to learn as we go along.”
Brown said the recall petition is an unfortunate distraction.
“Frankly, we wish this would all just go away,” he said. “The progress we have made in the last couple of months is astronomical, and the future is so bright. And now we have to spend district money and time on something so frivolous.”
The Mapaville Fire district serves about 3,000 residents in a 22-square-mile area in central Jefferson County, including parts of Pevely, Hillsboro and Festus mailing addresses. It employs three full-time and 17 part-time firefighters, supplemented by about 10 volunteers.