City launches investigation into signatures on candidate petitions

MORGANTOWN — Seventh Ward resident Frances Zepp said she has no idea how her signature and that of her husband, Paul, ended up on two Morgantown City Council candidate petitions, but she’s sure of one thing.

“To answer your question simply, no, we did not sign more than one petition. We know we couldn’t do that and we didn’t,” she said.

As part of the filing process, council candidates must collect 75 signatures from residents of their ward.

In signing a petition, the resident is confirming they are a certified voter in the ward in question and that they have not signed any other nominating petitions for that office.

It’s common for candidates to have assistance in circulating the petitions, but the circulator must sign the petition acknowledging the signatures were made in their presence and were affixed by the person whose name it purports to be.

This is part of the reason why Frances Zepp wonders how their signatures ended up on petitions for both 7th Ward candidates — incumbent Barry Wendell and Aaron Metz.

“My husband collected signatures for Wendell. So we signed Wendell’s. I honestly don’t even know who the other person is. So if somebody signed the other petition with our names, they did forge it because we were helping Wendell. We wouldn’t have signed his and then turned around and signed for the other person. Like I said, I’m not even aware of who the other person is, so I can guarantee we didn’t sign for both,” she said.

According to Morgantown Communications Director Andrew Stacy, the city is working with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office to answer this and other questions raised by 1st Ward resident Patrick Hathaway during the most recent session of council.

Hathaway said he had questions about one of the candidates and figured the nominating petitions might be a good place to start looking for answers.

Upon review, he found multiple signatures in the 7th Ward that were counted on both petitions and appeared to have been signed by different people.

He said he also found five instances on another petition — that of 6th Ward candidate Jay Redmond — in which it appears one spouse signed for the other.

While the Zepp signatures are in doubt, some of the other disputed names from the 7th Ward, like that of Patrick Cyphert, are more clear cut.

“Yeah, I did sign more than one. I wasn’t aware that I couldn’t and nobody told me otherwise,” he said.

In the case of a person signing multiple petitions, that signature should only be counted on the first petition turned in.

Wendell submitted his signatures on Jan. 23. Metz turned his in on Feb. 11, the final day to do so.

A message left for Metz was not returned in time for this report.

As for the question of spouses signing for one another, Redmond said he’s personally collected every signature in each of the four council elections he’s been a part of and feels he’s done nothing wrong.

“Almost every signature I gathered was from a close neighbor or a long-time friend or acquaintance. With an exception or two, I know every single person who signed my petition,” Redmond said. “Everything I did in gathering signatures was within the spirit and intention of the process. Only those with ulterior motives would see it otherwise.”

Redmond’s petition was certified with 78 signatures. If the five signatures in question are removed, he would fall below 75.

However, depending on the outcome of the city’s inquiry, that may be a moot point. Filing a petition with forged signatures — spouse or otherwise — would violate the city charter.

Stacy said that one of the ways the city is working to verify the signatures is by comparing them with voter signatures provided by the secretary of state’s office.

Redmond said given the lackluster participation in city elections, he’s disappointed that people have taken to analyzing handwriting.

“With so few residents willing to run for city council in the first place, why would anyone take a course of action that does nothing but discourage participation,” he said, later adding, “This is one of the most dangerous and troubling times in the history of city politics. I hope the voters put an end to it on April 30th.”

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