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Spartan Shield

The student news site of Pleasant Valley High School

Spartan Shield

The student news site of Pleasant Valley High School

Spartan Shield

Mishandled election recount leaves school board position undecided

Recount+board+members+Arun+Pillutla%2C+Mark+Smith+and+Cyndi+Diercks+were+responsible+for+determining+the+result+of+the+District+6+election.+Photo+credit+to+Arun+Pillutla
Recount board members Arun Pillutla, Mark Smith and Cyndi Diercks were responsible for determining the result of the District 6 election. Photo credit to Arun Pillutla

After Pleasant Valley’s November school board election resulted in all but one incumbent winning, it seemed to most that the tension within the district would resolve itself. But behind the scenes, a new battle was playing out—one with the potential to create further polarization in an already divided district.

After the original election, the District 6 seat went to newcomer Jameson Smith over incumbent write-in Tracey Rivera. That count totaled 256 votes for Smith and 250 for Rivera.

Due to the slim margin, Rivera requested a recount, to take place from Nov. 27-28. Iowa law states that each candidate must elect one representative to the recount board. The two chosen representatives are joined by one neutral party. Rivera chose to be represented by local business professor and former PV parent Arun Pillutla and Jameson Smith elected local lawn care business owner and PV grandparent Cyndi Diercks, both of whom were accompanied by Mark Smith, a retired judge. 

To the community, it seemed the recount had gone off without a hitch. The three members carefully examined each individual ballot to determine each vote’s intent and whether it was to be counted. At the end of the two-day period, 255 votes were counted for each candidate, settling the race as a tie. 

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An official tie would mean the election is left to chance, decided by a drawing. 

Per recount policy, each of the three members signed a two-page long official report stating total votes for each candidate and certifying that they agree with the result of a tie. The document was signed at 11 a.m. on Nov. 28, at which point it was delivered to Scott County Auditor Kerri Tompkins. 

And this is where the complication began.

At 3:51 that same afternoon, Tompkins notified Pillutla that she was no longer in possession of the report, despite it being transferred to her possession earlier that day.

“I just reviewed the video from yesterday morning. Around 11:00 a.m. Mark Smith handed me the report and then Cynthia Diercks took it,” said Tompkins in an email response to Pillutla and Diercks. 

Diercks affirmed on Nov. 30 that she had the document, though she did not clarify why she had taken it with her. This behavior was in direct violation of Iowa law, which requires the document to be filed with the auditor at the conclusion of the recount. Diercks returned the report to Tompkins three days after its removal, on Dec. 1, with one very notable change.

The previously two-page report was now a total of six pages long.

In the additional four unofficial pages, Diercks included copies of her own notes from the recount, suggesting that some votes were counted improperly and that the total should have been 229 for Jameson Smith and 207 for Rivera.

“I informed… the other two board members that I wanted to re-examine the ballots in these boxes,” Diercks said in the addition to the report. “The board continued the count, and finished without addressing the count disputes I asked about.”

But neutral party Mark Smith saw these events differently. In an email to Tompkins, he explained that Diercks objected to the last examined ballot because it was filled in with an X rather than being shaded, though she had not objected to other ballots under the same conditions. “It seems that she objected to the last ballot because she knew it was going to be a tie,” he wrote. “The guidelines do contain a provision that if there is an error on the ballot, but the intent of the voter is clear, we should not reject the ballot.”

Despite the objection, he and Pillutla agreed that the vote should be counted, and all three members signed the certification with no further dispute.

The additional four pages which Diercks added to the report included only her own signature. Recount laws state that at least two of the three recount board members must sign a report in order for it to be valid, so it is unclear whether these additional pages will be considered.

Pillutla holds that they have no place in the official recount.  

“I am told that the Recount Board Report must have at least two signatures. The report you have accepted, per your below email, doesn’t seem to comply with that requirement, given that retd. judge Mark Smith and I have already communicated by email to you that those additional pages created after 11 am on Nov 28th are NOT our report, does it?” wrote Pillutla in an email to Tompkins. 

He received no response.

In the wake of this dispute, Jameson Smith enlisted attorney Alan Ostergren to lodge a protest against the recount results. In a letter to Tompkins, Ostergren wrote, “The recount board’s proposed action creates the danger of Ms. Rivera, the loser of this race, being declared the winner.” 

He continued, “If this occurs, the outcome will surely be overturned in an election contest proceeding.”

Kelly Smith, Jameson Smith’s wife, also lodged a complaint. On Nov. 29, she wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors accusing Mark Smith and Pillutla of intentionally disobeying regulations. “The 2 members just completely disregarded the rules and law of this recount… How can a Board of Supervisors go through and certify election results knowing that the law was not followed?” Kelly Smith questioned.

Pillutla sees this issue as a direct result of government officials’ oversight. “The story is not about the recount…That’s not the problem. It begins afterwards, where this report goes around and nobody’s minding it. And where is it going? And why isn’t anybody saying where the report is for 72 hours?” he questioned. 

Now, the issue is up to the Scott County Board of Supervisors, who will ultimately decide the fate of District 6’s school board seat on Monday, Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. as part of a recanvass. If the results are certified as a tie, there will be an immediate drawing to determine the winner. But if the Board fails to honor the recount, Jameson Smith will remain as the district’s representative. 

The Spartan Shield reached out to Kerri Tompkins, Tracey Rivera, Jameson Smith and Alan Ostergren, but received no response at the time of publication.

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