The use of robo calls to influence voters on the Regional School Unit 18 budget referendum vote may be unusual, but there’s nothing illegal about them, according to state officials.

Outspoken budget opponents who helped reject the $32.6 million proposed budget won’t release information about who organized the calls and how much money was spent on them.

School Superintendent Gary Smith said that he was surprised to hear voters had received calls from computerized phone banks with recorded messages urging them to vote against the budget. Typically they are used only in larger elections, by well-funded and well-organized campaigns.

“I have dealt with a lot of tough budgets,” Smith said. “This approach was very new.”

There’s no way to tell how many voters were influenced by the calls. In all, 1,862, or 13.65 percent, of the district’s 13,637 registered voters voted in the election. The district includes Oakland, China, Belgrade, Sidney and Rome.

Sidney Selectwoman Kelly Couture said that budget opponents paid for four 30-second recordings to be sent to telphone numbers in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Couture said she provided the voice for two calls, which she recorded by reading a script into an Internet-based interface.

Still, Couture said that she doesn’t know how much the calls cost, or how many residents they went to.

“I don’t know, and that’s on purpose,” she said. “I purposely didn’t want to know.”

Couture said that budget opponents have decided to avoid membership lists or group meetings.

Part of the reason, she said, is to defuse claims that a small group of individuals is unduly influencing voters. Instead, she said, it is a grassroots effort with broad support, because of the vote results and of the number of people she doesn’t know who spoke publicly against the budget proposal.

She also said the lack of a membership list helps to protect some budget opponents from criticism and personal attacks.

With no organizational structure, pulling off a costly robo call campaign is more difficult.

Couture referred to a local man who organized the phone calls, and paid for them with donations from individuals throughout the five towns as “the keeper of the money.”

Couture contributed $75 to the robo call fund in two payments and was a conduit for another donation.

“Somebody handed me money and I just passed it along without even looking at it,” Couture said.

Couture did not want to identify the man who collected the money to make the calls. She forwarded an interview request to him, but he did not come forward.

Information or misinformation?

Laura Tracy, the school board chair, felt that the robo calls were harmful to understanding the district’s budget situation.

“It’s unfortunate, because a lot of the information was misleading to the public, and inaccurate,” she said.

Couture said the calls are simply a way to disseminate more information to more people.

“They’re not harmful, they’re helpful,” she said. “It’s important for the voters to have all the information.”

She said one phone message told residents that taxes would rise if the budget passed, but she wasn’t familiar with all of them.

Belgrade Selectman Penny Morrell, who was also involved with the robo calls, said they balance the school district’s All Call System, used to notify subscribers of school news, including budget votes.

While the information is impartial, the large majority of All Call System subscribers are parents, teachers and school employees.

“They’re only reaching out to the people that would support what they’re doing,” Morrell said.

Anyone in the community can request to be included in the All Call System, but few unaffiliated people do so.

Robo calls legal

The law seems to have a blind spot when it comes to money spent in school district elections.

Ordinarily, when a municipal election involves a population of more than 15,000 people, state election laws apply. Then, a group that raises money and engages in coordinated political campaigning might need to register as a Political Action Committee, according to Matt Marette of the state’s ethics commission.

But since the school district’s population is spread among the district’s five towns, Maine election laws don’t apply, he said.

The Department of Education doesn’t restrict campaign fundraising either, said spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

“There’s nothing in the education law that would prevent that,” he said.

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