SALEM – City officials have delayed a charter-mandated ceremonial swearing in of newly elected City Council and School Committee members as day seven of the Ward 6 election trial resumes Monday morning.
The event is required under the city’s charter to be held at 10 a.m. on the first Monday of the calendar year after an election. But officials postponed the ceremony due to the unexpected extension in a trial looking at the one-vote victory of Megan Riccardi over her challenger, City Council veteran Jerry Ryan, in Ward 6. The event has been rescheduled for Thursday, Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Lawrence Superior Court Judge John Lu ruled on Friday after a few hours of arguments over absentee ballots, with all of those decisions going in the city’s direction.
But he stopped short of making a decision on whether Ulises Escalera, a Spanish-speaking Ward 6 voter, was denied the right to vote. That now rests on whether the city adequately provided translation services at the polling place, and the city is expected to call witnesses and provide evidence in its defense.
As such, Lu “enjoined” the planned swearing-in of Riccardi and called for the trial to continue at 10 a.m. That further requires the attendance of city Clerk Ilene Simons and two assistants, who would generally be in charge of running the ceremony, according to an email sent to city leaders by city solicitor Beth Rennard Friday night.
“The city has yet to present its own case with respect to this claim,” Rennard wrote. “As such, Judge Lu has enjoined the city from swearing in Councilor-elect Megan Riccardi and scheduled the city’s presentation of evidence to begin.”
Rennard’s email noted that the city charter “provides that the city clerk shall swear in city councilors at 10 a.m. on the first Monday of January following a municipal election.” The charter further outlines that the oath of office can be administered later on “in the presence of the City Council to the mayor, or to any councilor absent from the meeting on the first Monday in January.”
It remains unclear if the charter provides for the postponement of the event entirely and what happens if not holding the event is a violation of the charter.
In her email, Rennard wrote that Lu forced the city’s hand.
“Although we requested that the hearing continue this afternoon or begin earlier on Monday so that the ceremony could proceed as scheduled, Judge Lu declined to change the time of trial,” Rennard wrote. “In addition to this irreconcilable conflict, the city clerk and her assistants will be otherwise occupied with preparations for and attendance at court on Monday, and likely Tuesday.”
Lu: “We’ll finish the trial”
The trial has been going for four weeks at this point, with two dates each week going back to before Christmas. Friday was the sixth day of the trial, one that mostly went the city’s way until Lu heard arguments from both sides about Escalera’s presence at the polls on Nov. 5. Escalera, who has been the center of attention for most of the trial, arrived just before polls closed in the car of Tyler Terry, a volunteer for Ryan’s campaign.
Escalera, who testified through an interpreter due to speaking only Spanish, lacked identification necessary to prove he lives in Salem after registering to vote at a government agency. Testimony from city officials outlined that any registration not happening at the clerk’s office is deemed a “mail-in” registration, which requires one-time proof of residency via a utility bill or other item bearing an address the first time the person tries to vote.
Nearing the end of Friday’s proceedings, Lu asked somewhat rhetorically, “did the nature of the interpretive services unlawfully deprive him of the right to vote?” That hinges on whether Escalera could’ve made it home to get identification and returned before polls closed at 8 p.m. It’s widely believed Escalera intended to vote for Ryan, so his ballot would’ve caused the election to end in a tie were it ever cast.
“On this discrete issue — you might really call it two or three small issues — that remains for trial on Monday,” Lu said. “I’m imagining this case goes beyond Monday too.”
Attorneys representing the city and Riccardi were quick to note that Simons, elections assistant Rochelle Sport and Maureen Fisher, an assistant clerk to the City Council, would be needed in Salem to run the inauguration.
“I really think everybody can work out those issues,” Lu said. “We’ll go Monday. We’ll go Tuesday. We’ll finish the trial.”