Former School Board member fined $100

Published 11:38 am Friday, February 17, 2023

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

When former Isle of Wight County School Board member Renee Dial tried to hand out sample ballots on Election Day in November, each with the oval next to her name filled in, poll workers stopped her.

The first-time candidate, who’d been appointed by the board in 2021 to fill the then-vacant District 2 seat, recalls being told her yellow ballots were the wrong color, even though Virginia law only prohibits sample ballots on white paper.

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They were, however, missing a disclaimer stating who paid for them. Sample ballots reproduced by a candidate are considered advertisements under state law, and must replace the “authorized by the electoral board” verbiage at the bottom of the document with “paid for” or “authorized by,” the name of the candidate.

The Nov. 8 election saw Dial lose by 545 votes to Mark Wooster, who’d billed himself as the conservative choice in the race on a platform of opposition to what he termed “divisive” and “sexually explicit” learning materials. But Dial’s troubles wouldn’t end there.

The State Board of Elections, a five-member body appointed by the governor, voted unanimously following a Jan. 18 hearing to fine Dial $100 for the missing “paid for” statements, which they said violated Virginia’s “Stand By Your Ad” law.

Andrea Gaines, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Elections, initially characterized the board’s Jan. 18 meeting as an “initial hearing” and contended “final decisions” would be made March 7. Dial, however, contended in comments on Facebook that she hadn’t been re-summoned to appear before the board in March and that the matter was closed. Asked to clarify, Gaines stated the board’s March 7 agenda hadn’t been finalized yet.

The Department of Elections received three stand-by-your-ad complaints against Dial last fall. Then-candidate Jason Maresh, who now holds the District 4 School Board seat, filed two of the complaints, each concerning missing “paid for” statements on some of Dial’s yard signs. County resident Heidi Swartz, who’d helped circulate Wooster’s nominating petition to get his name on the ballot, filed the third, which took issue with the missing disclosures on Dial’s sample ballots.

“I wasn’t even able to pass them out,” Dial said of the sample ballots at the Jan. 18 hearing.

Dial said she’d printed two batches of yard signs, only one of which was missing the required “paid for” disclosure. Dial said upon learning of the issue, she’d gone back and physically taped paper “paid for” statements to each of the signs missing the disclosure.

She then accused the complainers of being “on the opponent’s side” and of having “harassed” her for the past year during her brief tenure on the School Board.

Maresh, who like Wooster had billed himself as the conservative choice in his ultimately successful bid last year to oust former District 4 School Board member Michael Vines, had frequently used the public comment period at School Board meetings – as had Swartz – to argue their belief that Isle of Wight County Schools was “indoctrinating” students with Critical Race Theory through equity initiatives and social justice-themed books. The college-level legal theory, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other politicians have called “divisive,” argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities.

Last summer, Swartz requested Dial’s and Wooster’s nominating petitions from Isle of Wight County’s Voter Registrar’s Office under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The request triggered an investigation by the county’s local Electoral Board that concluded with the board allowing Dial to remain on the ballot despite “material omissions” in her petition.

Swartz again wrote to the Registrar’s Office last fall taking issue with Dial’s campaign expenditure reporting not including the money she spent to produce her yard signs and other materials. That time, her complaint resulted in the Registrar’s Office sending Dial a letter giving her 10 days to amend her reports or face a fine. Dial stated at the Jan. 18 hearing that she’d self-funded her entire campaign rather than accepting donations from others.

Registrar Lisa Betterton confirmed that since Dial met the 10-day deadline to amend her paperwork, she was not fined. Betterton also confirmed that Dial’s yellow sample ballots had been the correct color but had lacked the “paid for” disclosure.

Vines had also been subject to scrutiny by critics of the school system. Windsor-area resident Lewis Edmonds tried twice last year to have Vines recalled, though Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason dismissed Edmonds’ petitions each time. After Swartz wrote to the Registrar’s Office last fall, Vines was then fined $2,100 for missing multiple deadlines to report campaign finances to the state. The Registrar’s Office issued Vines an additional fine for missing the Dec. 8 deadline to file his campaign finance report for Oct. 28 through Dec. 1.