CANTON — A dispute between St. Lawrence County’s two election commissioners has wound its way through the court system and may cost the county an estimated $65,000 in legal fees, according to County Attorney Stephen D. Button.
The dispute is over whether election law allows a political candidate to run for two offices at the same time in two different towns.
Republican Elections Commissioner Thomas A. Nichols, argues that town law prohibits candidates from running for more than one office at the same time, while Democratic Elections Commissioner Jennie H. Bacon disagrees.
The issue arose in connection with the June 25 primary race when Mark Friden, a town of Clifton resident, filed petitions to run for the town justice seat in both the town of Clifton and the town of Piercefield.
Mr. Nichols refused to certify the ballots and filed an Article 78 legal action against Mrs. Bacon and Mr. Friden.
State Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Farley listened to oral arguments in the case and on June 13 ruled in favor of Mrs. Bacon’s position. She dismissed Mr. Nichols’ complaint and ordered him to certify Mr. Friden’s ballots so that he would appear on the ballots in both towns.
In her ruling, Judge Farley concluded that the provision in town law against holding dual elective town offices applied to each individual town and that “there is no incompatibility in holding two elective offices of town justice in two separate towns.”
Mr. Nichols appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department. Following an Aug. 21 hearing in Albany, the Appellate Court upheld Judge Farley’s decision, agreeing that a candidate for town justice could run in two different towns at the same time.
Mr. Nichols was represented by attorney John Ciampoli, and Mrs. Bacon appeared with attorney Addie Jenne, Theresa. The county is responsible for paying legal fees for both attorneys.
Mr. Button told county legislators Monday night that the county has been billed approximately $43,000 so far in connection with the case and expects that to reach $65,000 by the end of the year.
A written transcript of the hearing is included in Judge Farley’s decision, which is filed in the St. Lawrence County Clerk’s Office.
Town law prohibits any individual from holding more than one elective town office at any given time, Mr. Ciampoli argued, according to a written transcript of the hearing before Judge Farley.
Mr. Ciampoli said the two town boards did not agree to consolidate the town justice positions as allowed under the Uniform Justice Court Act.
“My client (Mr. Nichols) took an oath of office to enforce the law. His read of the law is that he may not certify a ballot for one person for more than one town office,” Mr. Ciampoli said.
Speaking in support of Mrs. Bacon and citing Section 20 of town law, Ms. Jenne argued that Mr. Nichols was falsely interpreting town law.
“I believe that Mr. Friden who is on both ballots can legally hold both offices, that they are not incompatible with each other,” Ms. Jenne argued.
In her ruling, Judge Farley noted that town law allows someone who does not live in Piercefield to hold the Piercefield town justice position.
She also noted that the Uniform Justice Court Act allows a town justice to preside in more than one court because the positions are not incompatible.
“I’m going to dismiss the petition, deny the relief, and in this particular circumstance allow the answer to be amended such that Mr. Nichols, the petitioner, is directed to certify the ballot,” Judge Farley ruled.
Mr. Nichols said he appealed Judge Farley’s decision because he took an oath to uphold election law and that takes priority over legal expenses incurred by the county.
“My job is not to look at what it cost. My job is to uphold the election law. The is the first time in the 10 years we’ve worked together as commissioners that we’ve sought court intervention,” Mr. Nichols said. “We both have an obligation to uphold election law to the best of our ability. We’re both trying to do that. This is how the process is supposed to work, and this will have statewide implications.”
Mr. Nichols said he’s uncertain if he will appeal the decision to the state’s highest court, the State Court of Appeals.
“I’m considering my options, and I will decide in the very near future whether I will request an appeal,” he said.
In the June primary election, Mr. Friden ran on the Republican and Democratic lines for the Clifton town justice seat. He lost both Clifton primary races. In the November general election for the Piercefield town justice seat he ran on the Democratic line.
John Dragun, a Democrat from Clifton, now serves as Clifton town justice and is running for re-election. He also serves as Piercefield town justice, a position he was appointed to by the Piercefield Town Board. Mr. Dragun is not seeking the Piercefield seat.