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To vote, or not to vote: Cape Vincent seasonal voters faced with a dilemma

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CAPE VINCENT — Seasonal residents Neal L. and Nancy B. Fischer of Tibbetts Point Road changed their voter registration from Canandaigua to Cape Vincent two years ago to help elect Town Council candidates who vowed to fight commercial wind development.

“We absolutely love the community and we didn’t want to see it go downhill any more than it already has,” Mrs. Fischer said this week.

The registration change by the Fischers and hundreds of other seasonal residents helped re-elect Supervisor Urban C. Hirschey and replaced pro-wind councilmen, with ties to wind lease holders, with past members of an anti-wind turbine group.

But the Fischers paid a price. They lost up to $400 in STAR (School Tax Relief) rebates at their residence in Canandaigua.

After hearing what had happened, Mr. Hirschey attempted to intervene with the Canandaigua city assessor, prompting the assessor to write a fiery letter to Jefferson County election officials suggesting voter fraud in Cape Vincent — a claim that Jefferson County election officials dismissed.

Pro-wind turbine residents have long accused Mr. Hirschey and others of manipulating the last election by enticing seasonal residents such as the Fischers to change their residency for the purpose of voting, and the letter shows how closely Mr. Hirschey was involved in the effort.

The letter was only recently given to the Times, which confirmed its validity with Canandaigua assessor Mark R. Brown.

“Dear Sirs: My office has been drawn into the contentious wind farm issue in the town of Cape Vincent,” Mr. Brown states in his letter written shortly after the 2011 elections.

For his part, Mr. Hirschey said he was only helping a constituent with a problem, which he would do for anyone in Cape Vincent.

But that’s not how Mr. Brown saw it. Apparently upset with the attempts to influence his decision, Mr. Brown described in his letter to county officials a series of voice messages and phone conversations between him and Mr. Hirschey, town assessor Robert V.R. Barnard and Mr. Fischer.

Mr. Brown said he refused to return calls from Cape Vincent government officials because both Mr. Hirschey and Mr. Barnard have “no standing in any matter between my office and Canandaigua property owners.”

On the day before the 2011 elections, Mr. Fischer had called the Canandaigua city assessor’s office, telling Mr. Brown that despite registering to vote at his “seasonal residence in Cape Vincent” he considered Canandaigua to be his primary residence as of Nov. 7, 2011.

“I suggested he had just admitted to voter fraud as he was not a Cape Vincent resident for 30 days prior to the election. The call ended shortly after that statement,” Mr. Brown said, adding that Mr. Hirschey called him again that same day to support the Fischers’ reasoning.

Mr. Brown’s letter also was copied to county District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert.

Jefferson County’s Republican election commissioner, Jerry O. Eaton, said Monday that Canandaigua’s assessor makes a “serious accusation” in his letter without the expertise in election law to prove it.

State election law allows people with “dual residency” to choose one property for voting purposes, Mr. Eaton said.

He also said his office had received and reviewed Mr. Brown’s letter but did not view it as a formal complaint.

“We have never received a legitimate challenge to a voter’s registration in Cape Vincent,” he said, adding that there weren’t any poll-site challenges in the town, either.

But many year-round residents of Cape Vincent frown upon “absentee voters” and argue that even if it’s not illegal, it’s still unethical.

Cape Vincent resident Harold L. Wiley, who had submitted a petition to the Town Board in 2011 calling for identification checks at local polling sites to prevent possible voter fraud, said absentee votes seem to be hard to challenge.

“It’s a gray area there. But it’s not good, ethical conduct,” he said, referring to seasonal residents who claim primary residence elsewhere but register to vote in Cape Vincent. “And there’s a lot of investigation going on statewide.”

The state recently has started cracking down on fraudulent claims for STAR exemptions, which are meant only for owner-occupied primary residences.

According to the state Department of Taxation and Finance’s website, the “local assessor considers many factors to determine whether a property is your primary residence, like voting, vehicle registrations and length of time spent each year on the property.”

Mr. Hirschey said he had contacted the Canandaigua assessor “to make sure he knew that the resident was not changing his permanent residence to Cape Vincent and to explain the situation.”

“I was asked by a Cape Vincent resident to help him with a situation where he was being harassed on the issue of where he was voting and that it was affecting his STAR exemption,” Mr. Hirschey said. “As the supervisor of Cape Vincent, I always do my best to support and work with the residents of Cape Vincent whether they are year-round, permanent residents that go south in the winter or residents that have a summer residence here and a second permanent residence elsewhere.”

Mrs. Fischer said she and her husband have been visiting Cape Vincent for 25 years and thought their dreams were finally coming true when they built a house on Tibbetts Point Road.

And despite losing hundreds of dollars in STAR exemptions as a result of voting locally, the Fischers do not regret their decision.

“It’s a $300, $400 difference. But it was worth it to us,” Mrs. Fischer said Tuesday.

To read Mr. Brown’s letter, go to: http://goo.gl/WAmCQ

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