Photo: Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media
GREENWICH — As commuters rushed onto the platform at the Riverside train station early Monday morning, two Republican school board candidates competed for their attention, each armed with a different petition.
Incumbent Republican Peter Bernstein collected signatures to get onto the ballot for the November election. Bernstein, who is in his first term on the board, did not receive an endorsement for re-election from the Republican Town Committee last week.
Nearby, Jason Auerbach, whom the Republican Town Committee did endorse for the school board, urged passers-by to sign his petition indicating their support for changing the Town Charter. The proposed change would alter Board of Education election rules so top vote-getters in each election win seats, regardless of party, doing away with rules that prevent a party from holding a majority on the board.
Bernstein maintains their efforts infringe on his ability to collect signatures. He has eight days to collect 637 names from registered Republicans if he wants to appear on the ballot as a party member. Under current rules, Republicans will be able to fill two of the four school board seats up in the fall election.
Auerbach said he started the petition last week, after receiving his RTC endorsement. He has been joined by Board of Education Chairman Peter Sherr, who is seeking re-election in November and also was endorsed by the RTC.
They said their petition is about educating voters on the importance of charter change and showing the Board of Selectmen the support in town for the proposed change.
While neither petition precludes voters from signing the other, relations between the two petitioning camps soured over the weekend as the groups faced off at the Holly Hill transfer station on Saturday and Tod’s Point on Sunday.
A large sign stating “Republicans support Republicans, Democrats support Bernstein” leaned in the back of a truck at the station Saturday, according to photographs shared with Greenwich Time. Members of each group say that some petitioners behaved in an aggressive, confrontational manner toward petitioners for the other issue.
On Sunday, Auerbach was photographed on Tod’s Point with his sons who carried signs saying “Support real choice not fake choice” and “Bernstein now?! He’s for choice?!”
Too many Greenwich voters don’t know what charter change is all about, Sherr said in an interview Monday. The charter change petition hopes to fix that.
“The only people who have been talking about this really are the political parties,” Sherr said. “This was really an effort to try to communicate to the people who will be making these decisions … what the depth of support is for this.”
The idea of a petition had been tossed around for months, Sherr said. The Republican group, which also includes RTC member Randall Smith and others, was motivated to start because of the lack of real voter choice they saw in the 2017 Board of Education race.
“I think (the petition) got pulled forward when the Democrats didn’t nominate anyone for choice — they are giving no choice — and Peter Bernstein started talking about choice when he was clearly against it,” he said, referencing to Bernstein’s vote against charter change in a sense-of-the-board vote the BOE took in May. “The voters were going to get confused.”
The petition will be shared with the First Selectman and town Charter Change Commission, Auerbach said, “to show them the tremendous amount of support that we see for (charter change) from unaffiliated voters, Democratic voters and Republican voters.”
The Charter Change Commission is currently discussing the proposed election rule alterations. No referendum on charter is expected in November, nor is a vote on charter change by the Representative Town Meeting expected imminently.
The charter change petition has drawn comment from community members of all political stripes.
“The charter petition is clearly meant to disrupt Peter Bernstein’s effort,” said John Blankley, a prominent Greenwich Democrat and member of the BET. “There is nothing on the ballot this year about charter change for them to campaign for.”
Democratic school board member Laura Erickson said, “I think they are trying to block him. It’s an active effort.”
She said she was “physically sickened” by Auerbach’s decision to have his children hold anti-Bernstein signs at the beach.
“For someone who is possibly going to be representing the interests of children on the Greenwich Board of Education, I think it is a really bad signal,” she said.
Criticism of the effort by Sherr and Auerbach has not just come from Democrats. Ed Dadakis, a former RTC chairman and one of the town’s most active Republicans, said people all over town have been talking about their actions.
“Never ever in a million years would I have done something like what they are doing to Peter Bernstein. … We’re talking about a basic constitutional right here,” Dadakis said. “You should be able to talk to the voters without being interfered with.”
Republican school board member Barbara O’Neill called the petition a “fake,” while helping Bernstein collect signatures on Monday morning.
“Peter Sherr, Randall Smith, Jason Auerbach, who are the people behind charter change, don’t want Peter Bernstein on the board because he doesn’t support charter change,” she said. “I don’t support charter change because it is going to turn the Board of Ed over to a small segment of the Republican party.”
Collecting signatures Monday, Auerbach said, “I’m out here because there is attention on the race right now so it is an opportunity to introduce myself to the voters and it’s an opportunity to get attention to this issue.”
Auerbach, Sherr and Smith have collected signatures for charter change at many of the same times and locations that Bernstein and his supporters have sought signatures.
“I’m out here to collect signatures and the fact is that they are impeding my ability to do that, which is my First Amendment right,” Bernstein said. “They are also suppressing the voters’ choice to have people on the ballot, which is just so against everything our democracy stands for. Four years ago, no one disrupted Peter Sherr’s ability to collect signatures and get on the ballot.”
On Monday morning, many Riverside commuters seemed unsure whether all the petitioners were part of the same group and if they could sign one petition having signed the other.
Auerbach, who lives in Riverside, said he expected Bernstein to be at the Old Greenwich train station Monday morning based on campaign materials he distributed last week.
Bernstein did not go to Old Greenwich because he feared the charter change petitioners would go there to sabotage him, he said.