BELIZE CITY, Mon. May 14, 2018– The March 7 national municipal elections have come and gone, and all the elected municipal bodies are functioning, except for the United Democratic Party (UDP) Town Council in San Pedro, which is facing a legal challenge in an election petition about its legitimacy. In the election, the UDP mayoral candidate Daniel Guerrero won with 2,667 votes while the PUP mayoral candidate Abner Perez received 2,629 votes.
This morning, a group of PUP supporters from San Pedro gathered in Battlefield Park, in front of the Supreme Court buildings on Regent Street, clutching their signs of protest as their party’s election petition got underway in the biggest courtroom in the country, which was packed to capacity, with standing room only.
Late this evening, witnesses concluded their testimonies in the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, who is hearing an election petition that was filed by the Opposition People’s United Party, which is asking the court to set aside the results of the March 7 election and order new elections for the San Pedro Town Council.
The election petition will continue on Monday, May 28, when the parties will make final submissions before CJ Benjamin.
The last witness to take the stand today was Chief Meteorologist, Catherine Josephine Millicent Cumberbatch, who was the Returning Officer on San Pedro and who had given a witness statement in the election petition on April 23.
The election petition was filed by the PUP San Pedro Town Council slate, which is represented by attorney Eamon Courtenay, S.C. against the 7 members of the UDP San Pedro Town Council, who are being defended by attorney Estevan Perrera.
The Attorney General is also named as an interested party in the election petition, while Returning Officer, Catherine Cumberbatch, has been named as an eighth respondent. Cumberbatch and the Attorney General are being defended by Solicitor General Nigel Hawke.
Cumberbatch, Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai and Presiding Officer Desiree Flowers all admitted to various irregularities under intense cross-examination from Courtenay.
Chief Elections Officer Tamai admitted to opening the envelope which contained the ballots for San Pedro at her Elections and Boundaries office, where it remained “under lock and key.”
Tamai, under cross-examination from Courtenay, admitted that no one was present when she opened the bag with the ballots from San Pedro.
Tamai said the counting took place at her office for the unused ballots.
When she was asked where the ballots are presently, Presiding Officer Flowers replied that she had no idea where the ballots are.
Flowers admitted that there was some discrepancies with the number of ballots and that where there should have been 359, there were instead 379.
Flowers told the court that the Returning Officer certified that there were 41 unused ballot papers, but that figure was wrong, she admitted.
Cumberbatch admitted that after the polling had ended, she was not present at the table when the counting began.
Cumberbatch also said that an unsealed and unlocked box was handed to her.
“All the ballot papers, used and unused ballot papers were put inside that box. I did not check the box; Ms. Flowers locked the box and gave me the key,” she stated.
Cumberbatch said the ballots reached the Chief Elections Officer Tamai on March 9, two days after the elections.
Cumberbatch said that all the documents were taken out of the box and placed in a garbage bag, and the box was left in San Pedro, and she told the court that she didn’t recall how long the handing-over to the Chief Elections Officer took.
Tamai had said under-cross examination that the hourly count that the Elections and Boundaries Department was posting on its website was not important in the overall scheme of things.
Cumberbatch, however, said that she created a spreadsheet in Excel to document the hourly voting count that she was getting from the 17 presiding offices at the polling stations on San Pedro.
Cumberbatch also admitted that the number of ballot papers used was incorrectly stated and that she had corrected the number.
Following the hearing, Courtenay told reporters that the case was brought by the petitioners, who called their three witnesses to testify. The case was based on whether or not the elections were conducted in accordance with the Town Regulations and the Town Council Act.
Courtenay explained, “The witnesses we called, we believe, gave evidence very clearly that there was no compliance with the law. A number of these incidents of non-compliance was actually confirmed by the returning officer, Ms. Cumberbatch, and by the Chief Elections Officer and then again their witness, Mrs. Flowers.”
Courtenay went on to explain that what is left now is for them to give submissions to the Chief Justice. “And what we will attempt to do in our submission is to persuade the Chief Justice that the irregularities we have identified, irregularities which they have admitted — you heard Ms. Cumberbatch telling you that she had to correct a lot of the papers — we had the amazing confession from Elections and Boundaries Commission that after the elections, they in fact had the ballots and they opened the bag and counted the ballots, is not in compliance with the law,” he said.
Courtenay said that with all that, they hope to convince the Chief Justice that elections must be carried out again in San Pedro.
Courtenay was asked if he disputes any assertion from any party that their petition is frivolous and vexatious.
“Anyone who says that, I believe is being politically partisan and not legal. We are now in court, and not in the political arena,” Courtenay replied.
“What about ballot box CA and the 275 missing ballots”, Courtenay was asked.
“What happened there is that there were 675 ballots that were made available. I think there are 800 and something voters in that area. At the end of the balloting, they only put on the form 400. The question is where is the other 275 ballots?
“What they did, and this is the point we are making to the Chief Justice, what the Elections and Boundaries Commission, and in particular Ms. Cumberbatch [must do], is to realize this mistake and simply put on the form, strike out the numbers and add 275 and say, oh, that is accurate,” Courtenay explained.
“Ms. Cumberbatch would have had to have gone and checked the ballots herself to say 275 was actually accounted for, and then put it on the form. She did not do that, and therefore her certificate of correcting it cannot be relied on. That is just a mathematical correction to try to reconcile what they had on paper”, Courtenay said.
Courtenay was asked if it was proper for the Chief Elections Officer to take the ballots and count them at her office.
“The law is very clear. They should have been sealed by the returning officer and should not have been opened unless they were brought to court, by an order of the court”, he said.
“We have now no confidence as to where those ballots are, the status of them, or whether they are all accounted for, and that is an issue which we will be addressing the Chief Justice on,” said Courtenay.