A dispute in the Kennebec County town of Rome about how a candidate’s name should appear on the local ballot appears to have abated, but those on both sides are left feeling uneasy about the matter with the election just two weeks away.

The issue arose when resident Heather Lynn Briggs submitted nomination papers to run for the second selectman’s seat in the March 13 election, the day before Town Meeting. Town Clerk Julie Morrison placed the name on the ballot as Briggs submitted it: Heather Hawes Briggs.

Hawes is Briggs’ maiden name, a well-known name in Rome. Her late grandfather, Harold Hawes, was a selectman when he died in 2009 while in office.

Heather Lynn Briggs Contributed

Richard LaBelle, a town budget committee member and former selectman who is running for first selectman, challenged the use of the name Heather Hawes Briggs on the ballot, saying it is not her legal name. The voter registration list shows her legal name is Heather Lynn Briggs and that is the way it should appear on the ballot, LaBelle wrote in an email to Morrison, dated Feb. 17.

Emails between Morrison and LaBelle, exchanged from Feb. 17 to Feb. 20 and obtained by the Morning Sentinel through a Freedom of Access request, highlight LaBelle’s contention that the use of the name “is in violation of ballot rules.” LaBelle also works as the town manager for the Somerset County town of Norridgewock, about 15 miles northeast of Rome.

Morrison, the town clerk, replied to LaBelle in a Feb. 19 email that she called Maine Municipal Association and spoke with a person in the legal department. Morrison acknowledged to LaBelle in the email that it was an oversight on her part not to check the voter registration list to see how Briggs registered and that it was a “lesson learned.”

Morrison said she learned from the municipal association that to challenge a name on nomination papers, it must be done within 48 hours from the close of submitting nomination papers. LaBelle’s request was not made within that time period, according to Morrison. Her email to LaBelle said she learned from the municipal association that it was a less risky position for the town to use the name listed on the nomination papers. Morrison wrote there is “no legal standing to appeal the ballots.”

LaBelle wrote back to Morrison that same day, saying he was “disappointed, at the very least, with the decision to proceed with a nonlegal name appearing on the ballot.”

Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle, shown in 2016 at his office, initially challenged the legality of the name Heather Briggs had on the Rome ballot, but has decided not to contest the issue further. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

“The decision to continue the election with a nonlegal name is a total violation of the spirit of the law and some may infer, an attempt by the Office, to gain visibility and exposure for the candidate,” LaBelle’s email states.

Briggs, a paralegal, said in a phone interview this week that she felt targeted by LaBelle, though she has never met him and is not running against him in the March 13 local election. Briggs is challenging Lois Stratton for the second selectman’s seat which Stratton now holds.

Briggs said LaBelle’s suggestion that Morrison could appear to be giving Briggs’ candidacy visibility by allowing her to use Heather Hawes Briggs on the ballot appeared to her as a bullying tactic.

“She did tell me that she was feeling bullied by him,” Briggs said of Morrison.

Contacted Wednesday, Morrison declined to comment on the matter, but Rome First Selectman Paul Anderson said he believes LaBelle was bullying the town clerk.

“He does what he can to throw his weight around and make people nervous and see if it can make them do his bidding,” Anderson said.

Contacted on Thursday, LaBelle said he raised the issue about Briggs’ name as just one issue that was mishandled during the election process. He said absentee ballots are supposed to be available a minimum of 30 days before the election and they were issued a day later than they should have been. He said he was told selectmen hadn’t finalized the referendum language and wanted to put an additional item in at the last minute.

“It’s a big disappointment with the process and how it happened,” LaBelle said.

Morrison emailed the Morning Sentinel on Saturday, saying she wanted to respond to LaBelle’s comment on the absentee ballot issue.

“Richard (LaBelle) states ballot must be available 30 days before election; my count was ballots must be available February 13th for the March 13th election.  (30 days) The town ballots were issued February 13th and it was Richard who stated to me ‘ballots must be available February 13th’ when he called to ask about them,” she wrote. “Because of leap year it gave 1 extra day and that may be confusing people. I feel the town ballots were available to residents 30 days before the election and there is nothing wrong with when or how they were issued.”

LaBelle said he does not plan to contest the Briggs name issue any further since Morrison advised him he challenged it outside of the 48 hour-window allowed under law and wrote that there was no legal standing to appeal the ballots.

“I just kind of look at it as ‘Yes, lesson learned,’ but there’s a need for checks and balances — double checks and balances for respecting state statutes around local elections,” LaBelle said.

Kristen Schulze Muszynski, director of communications for the Maine Department of the Secretary of State, said the rules for state and municipal elections are separate but overlap in some areas.

Asked about the situation in Rome, she responded in an email: “I confirmed with Deputy Secretary Julie Flynn that this would be a decision for the town to make; it will be up to them and their legal advisers to decide how to answer this question, with review of any applicable provisions in MRSA Title 30-A, Title 21-A and the town charter.”

Rome does not have a charter. Rome Second Selectman Lois Stratton, whom Briggs is challenging for her seat, said it is up to the town clerk to make the final decision about what name appears on the ballot.

A former town clerk herself, Stratton said she did not know there was a dispute going on about Briggs’ name until after the fact, when she went to the town office and heard people talking about it. Asked if she had a problem with Briggs’ using “Heather Hawes Briggs” on the ballot, she said she did not.

“I’m not upset by that,” Stratton said.

Also contacted about town ballots, Stephen Gove, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, emailed a copy of the association’s Town Meeting & Election Manual, which says only legal names are allowed on a printed ballot and state law gives some guidance on what counts as a legal name. A name may be used, for instance, if it has been approved by a court order or is the name consistently used by a candidate during the past two years in filings with government agencies and in transacting public business. The law refers to paperwork including voter and mobile vehicle registrations, driver licenses, passports and professional licenses as applicable filings and transactions. Nicknames are not allowed on ballots.

Asked what name she used to register to vote, Briggs said she used “Heather Lynn Briggs.”

Rome Third Selectman Kelly Archer said she thought LaBelle placed “more pressure than necessary” on Morrison regarding the ballot name. Archer took issue with his email to Morrison saying one could infer her decision to allow the name Heather Hawes Briggs to be on the ballot as an attempt to give additional visibility and exposure to Briggs.

“That’s carrying it too far,” Archer said.


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