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After day in court, Sampson is ousted from school ballot in Buffalo

Buffalo School Board President James M. Sampson tried to claw his way back onto the West District ballot for next week’s School Board elections but fell short Wednesday in a downtown courtroom.

Meanwhile, also in court, a colleague of Sampson’s on the board’s five-member majority, Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy, barely hung on to his spot on the North District ballot despite a challenge to his petitions.

Those two developments in State Supreme Court concluded a wild few days in the race for six district seats on the nine-member board and finally set the ballots for the voting just five days away.

Sampson’s ouster brought the total number of candidates knocked off the ballot to three. This means that in three of the six races, voters will have only one choice on the ballot.

The proceedings that continued to unfold in court Wednesday also showed just how aggressively factions are working to upset the control and makeup of the board. Experienced political operatives have been brought into the fray, including some with connections to Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, both of whom have been involved in the effort to disqualify candidates aligned with the current reform majority.

The morning began before State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, where attorneys challenged last week’s ruling by the Erie County Board of Elections that Sampson had not collected enough valid signatures. Sampson had 469 valid signatures – 31 shy of the 500 needed to be on the ballot.

One by one, the disputed signatures were scrutinized by attorneys and the judge.

“The board invalidated that signature based on the objection that there was no address given,” argued Joseph T. Burns, Sampson’s attorney. “There is an address in here.”

“Are we looking at the same thing?” Michalek said, staring down at the petition.

“I’m going to reserve decision on that,” the judge said. “Let’s go to the next one.”

And so it went for more than an hour in court. In some cases, the signatures weren’t legible and didn’t match the writing on the voter registration card.

“What the hell’s that?” Michalek said, staring down at a petition.

“I would argue it’s a very artfully made signature,” Burns said.

In other cases, the question was whether printing was considered a valid signature.

“The board invalidated that signature because it was hand printed,” said Burns, as he referred to another Sampson petition. “I would argue some signatures change. That should be a valid signature.”

“I’m going to give you that one,” Michalek said.

By the time the haggling was over, the judge agreed to validate 22 of the 31 disputed signatures, reducing Sampson’s number to 491.

“So basically,” Michalek told Sampson’s lawyer, “you’re nine short.”

That left Jennifer L. Mecozzi as the only candidate on the ballot in the West District, although Sampson still is weighing a write-in effort.

The venue then shifted to the courtroom of State Supreme Court Justice James H. Dillon, where McCarthy’s attorneys were fighting to keep the two-term incumbent on the ballot.

McCarthy had 510 signatures validated by the Board of Elections, but attorneys for his opponent, Hope R. Jay, launched a legal challenge in hopes of knocking him out of the election. Several voters who signed McCarthy’s petition were brought to court Wednesday – the second day of the hearing – to make a case for election fraud.

Attorneys Timothy R. Lovallo and Sean E. Cooney tried to show that a couple circulating a McCarthy petition on Norwood Avenue on one weekend in March didn’t actually witness many of the signatures. The attorneys also argued that some of the signatures were fraudulent.

“The person said I could sign on behalf of my husband,” said Norwood resident Patricia Mazon. “He had a general sense of what the petition was, but he didn’t sign.”

After the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, Dillon said McCarthy did not commit any election fraud. The judge, however, ruled out seven signatures on McCarthy’s petitions. That left McCarthy with 503, barely enough to clear the 500 threshold. “We’re happy with that,” said Jeffery T. Bochiechio, one of McCarthy’s attorneys. “I think it was also important that these fraud allegations were clearly dismissed by the judge, especially in relation to Mr. McCarthy.”

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, School Board politics continued. Cooney, representing Jay, noted how candidates aligned with the board’s majority – Sampson, McCarthy and Colleen E. Russell, who was knocked of the ballot in the East District on Monday – all had trouble meeting the required 500 signatures.

“I think it begs the question of whether people are behind their agenda,” Cooney said.

News Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report. email: jrey@buffnews.com and tlankes@buffnews.com