HARPERS FERRY – Harpers Ferry’s Town Council will hear a legal challenge to the town’s June 11 municipal election later this month.
Mayor Wayne Bishop and the Town Council voted 4-3 Monday to set a hearing Aug. 24 for two candidates who came up a few votes short in their bid for seats on the Town Council to present their cases for overturning the election’s certified outcome.
Nancy Case and Deborah McGee, who filed a formal election challenge on July 18, contend that five provisional ballots from town residents should have been counted, in accordance with state law, and that four ballots were improperly approved by relatives of three other candidates.
No time was set for the Aug. 24 hearing.
The outcome of the election is considered pivotal to whether the Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment project moves forward or dies after more than a decade of delays.
Officials with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office informed town officials that state law requires a hearing to be held on the election challenge by Sept. 11, said town Recorder Kevin Carden.
Carden, Bishop and council members Jay Premack and Christian Pechuekonis voted to set the hearing date.
However, three council members who won re-election voted against the Aug. 24 date. Council members Charlotte Thompson, Hardy Johnson and Barbara Humes instead sought a different date for the hearing — three days after the Sept. 11 deadline.
The three said attorneys representing them personally disputed the secretary of state’s interpretation of the deadline requirement. Their attorneys would also have difficulty attending a hearing before Sept. 11, each said.
During the hearing, the mayor and council will decide whether to overturn the final ballot results.
At the hearing, the council will also decide which sitting members should be allowed to rule on the election challenge.
Some town officials maintain three council members — Thompson, Johnson and Pechuekonis — should not participate in the hearing because the challenge could influence whether they retain the council seats they won. Other observes have maintained that the entire council cannot participate in the hearing — a move that would leave the council without a quorum and unable to make a decision.
Any decision resulting from the election challenge hearing could be appealed to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, according to state election officials.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s Office has begun a formal criminal investigation into whether town officials violated state election laws. The office is looking into whether council members knowingly rejected legal votes and ignored state law by failing to count six provisional ballots that resulted from a clerical error.