Recall drive stalls against Benton Township clerk, treasurer

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Efforts to recall Benton Township Clerk Carolyn Phillips and Treasurer Debbie Boothby fell short due to irregular signatures and the lack of verified signatures.

Carolyn Toliver, elections administrator at the Berrien County Clerk’s office, said the county received signatures July 17 and began the process of verifying the signed petitions. Upon completion, the county determined there were not enough qualified signatures to move forward for a Nov. 3 recall election.

As a result, the recall is over.

“They weren’t valid,” Toliver said. “We had a few signatures where the addresses were not complete and someone else filled it in.”

Benton Township resident Willie Dortch had submitted recall petitions after the two township officials voted to appoint former trustee Kevin White as township supervisor Feb. 11.

The number of problems found in the collected signatures included ones where a date was not filled in, incomplete addresses, some were not Benton Township residents – but Benton Harbor instead – and some were duplicate signatures. Another problem with the signatures was some did not match the voter’s handwriting.

“Some of the signatures did not match the signature in the qualified voter file, which is a computerized system linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Toliver said. “We can access the signatures on the driver’s license and verify them with Mastercard.”

After the verification process was complete, Boothby had 662 verified signatures and Phillips had 617 verified on her behalf. Dortch needed a minimum of 781 signatures for each public official. The number of signatures is determined by 25 percent of the votes cast in the officials’ district in the last gubernatorial election in 2014.

A county investigation

In reaction to the end of the recall, Boothby and Phillips jointly released a statement on the failed effort to remove them from public office.

“Multiple irregularities among the signatures had been identified, and we felt it necessary to forward our findings to the Prosecutor’s Office for review,” the statement said. “…It is unfortunate that some individuals use the recall laws for personal issues and vendettas not for a legitimate reason as intended by the law.”

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic said the disqualified signatures are being investigated by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff’s department began its investigation Aug. 6, but there is no time frame for when they will present their findings.

Sepic said the investigation involves a great degree of tedious inspections of the signatures and interviewing citizens.

“It’s been a month and I have not discussed this with the investigators,” Sepic said. “Saying someone collected irregular signatures is one thing, proving they are criminally responsible for them is another. Once the investigation is complete I’ll make a decision whether any charges are appropriate.”

Dortch said there was no wrongdoing on his part, but that it was the signers who made the mistakes.

“We had enough signatures, but I guess there were 300 some people who weren’t registered voters,” he said. “They had moved out of Benton Harbor and into the township and didn’t have a change of address.”

With elections to begin next year, Dortch said he and a few others plan on running for several positions on the board of trustees. Dortch said he plans to run for township supervisor.

“If I lose it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m not going to stop. A lot of stuff is going down in the township that people don’t know about.”

Dortch has said he filed the petitions because Boothby and Phillips went about appointing the new supervisor the wrong way. Dortch filed his recall petitions May 7, with both being approved at a May 18 clarity hearing.

In their released statement, Boothby and Phillips said they stand by their decision to appoint White, as township operations have “continued seamlessly during his transition.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 3, 2015)

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