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Opponent of San Juan fireworks ban says ballot language was changed without his knowledge

Don Burkhart of Blakely Island, who led the effort to repeal the ban on the use of all consumer fireworks in San Juan County, including those considered
Don Burkhart of Blakely Island, who led the effort to repeal the ban on the use of all consumer fireworks in San Juan County, including those considered 'safe and sane,' believes the ballot title of the fireworks referendum was written in such a confusing manner that the choice presented to voters was unclear. Voters upheld the county's ban.
— image credit: San Juan County Elections Department

The ballots are counted and results have been certified. But there's at least one issue from the November election which has yet to be put to rest.

Don Burkhart of Blakely Island, who led the effort to repeal the ban on the use of all consumer fireworks in San Juan County, including those considered "safe and sane," believes the ballot title of the fireworks referendum was written in such a confusing manner that the choice presented to voters was unclear.

In fact, Burkhart contends it's likely that many voters selected the opposite of what they had intended when ballots were marked. He is contesting the outcome of the referendum — voters upheld the county ban 4,096 to 3,561 — and asked for a temporary delay in certification of the election results in a lawsuit filed Nov. 20 in Superior Court.

"I believe the ballot title was so muddled and confusing that a crucial number of voters selected the reverse of their intended outcome," Burkhart responded in an e-mail asking for comment on the case. "Such a sweeping and comprehensive ban decree must be absolutely squeaky clean, untainted by any irregularities for it to claim even a whisper of legitimacy."

In the referendum, an islander voted "approved" if he or she wanted to uphold the county's fireworks ban. An islander voted "rejected" if he or she wanted to reject the ban.

In one of the final rulings of his distinguished career, the late Superior Court Judge John Linde determined there was an "issue" about the ballot title that needed to be resolved. He agreed to hear the case, but he denied the request to place a temporary restraining order on certification of the election results. The results were certified Nov. 23.

In 2008, at the request of the association of local fire chiefs, the County Council banned the use of all consumer fireworks, from Roman candles to sparklers, punishable by a $250 fine. The ban was to take effect just prior to this year's Fourth of July celebration. the ban was put on hold pending the outcome of the November election after Burkhart and supporters collected enough signatures to challenge it in the second-ever countywide referendum.

According to court documents, Burkhart contends the wording of the ballot title which he was shown and had agreed to several months before the election is not what appeared on ballots that ended up in the hands of the voters. He claims the results of the referendum should be tossed out because of revisions made without his knowledge by the county prosecutor.

Prosecuting Attorney Randall K. Gaylord was out of town at this writing and was not available for comment. But in court documents, he maintains Burkhart missed his chance to challenge rewording of the ballot title, and that any changes made were done in accordance with rules set out in the county charter.

The sponsor of a referendum, according to Gaylord, has up to 10 days once a ballot title is submitted to the auditor to contest its wording. He noted Burkhart filed the lawsuit 17 days after the election.

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