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“Welcome to the Jon and Ron show,” Jon Stainbrook announces. The show needs to build a following quickly among Lucas County voters, or it risks getting canceled by the Ohio secretary of state.
Mr. Stainbrook is the chairman of the county Republican Party and the ranking GOP member of the county board of elections. His co-star is Ron Rothenbuhler, who is the chairman of both the county Democratic Party and the four-member elections board.
They are embarking on a highly visible, bipartisan campaign to repair chronic problems at the board — which Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio’s chief elections officer, has characterized as the most dysfunctional in the state.
During a visit to The Blade last week, Messrs. Stainbrook and Rothenbuhler insisted that complaints about the board’s deficiencies are overblown, that the board is meeting its mandate to run elections in Lucas County efficiently and honestly, and that its remaining problems are well on their way to resolution.
You could get an argument about all of these assertions. And the board’s credibility isn’t enhanced by questions raised late last week about whether Republican board member Tony DeGidio still lives in the county.
A report ordered by Secretary Husted and released last month concluded that the elections board and its staff operate in an atmosphere of “mistrust and paranoia.” It cited what it called a lack of board leadership and an inability or unwillingness by staff to perform the simplest day-to-day tasks of keeping records and managing public property.
One of the two consultants who prepared the bipartisan report was a Democratic member of the board until he quit last year. Mr. Stainbrook and Mr. Rothenbuhler say they will issue a rebuttal this week.
“There’s a lot of misperceptions about what we’ve done or not done,” Mr. Rothenbuhler told me. “We are going to try to work together, despite the obstacles provided by people who say they want to help. We can’t use each other as an excuse for not getting this done.”
Adds Mr. Stainbrook: “Both of our reputations are on the line. We are trying to sit down and work things out. That doesn’t mean we’re in cahoots. But we’re either going to fix it or we’re done.”
Despite the harsh criticism in the report, Mr. Husted has ended his direct oversight of the board, which he imposed last August to get the board through early voting and the general election. In a letter last month that conveyed an exasperated tone, the Republican secretary of state said his office had done all it could do to help, and that the board needs to clean its own house.
“Jon and Ron” say they’re doing just that. They have rejected the report’s key proposal — that the board immediately fire its Republican director, Megan Gallagher, and its Democratic deputy director, Dan DeAngelis. But Mr. Rothenbuhler says he plans to demand that the two officials promptly submit new job descriptions that will clearly define their relative duties.
If they can’t reach agreement within a month, Mr. Rothenbuhler says, they may “need to be replaced.” Mr. Stainbrook says he supports the proposal.
But the two top staffers report to the board. Isn’t it the boss’s job to decide what the workers should do? When elections board members tried last year to establish a division of labor for the two officials, the vote broke down along party lines and the issue went unresolved. The outcome this time will show how deeply the board’s new bipartisan comity runs.
Mr. Stainbrook and Mr. Rothenbuhler express frustration over portrayals of the board’s two Republicans and two Democrats as perpetually in partisan deadlock. They say the last major stalemate occurred last August, when the board divided six times on where to place the county’s early voting center. Mr. Husted had to order them to break the tie.
Now, Mr. Rothenbuhler complains that when he and his Republican counterpart try to cross party lines to find solutions, activists in both parties accuse them of being “hooked at the hip.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of advice from my own party,” he says. “But if I’m going to fail at this job, it’s going to be because of what I do, not what somebody else does. And I’m not big into failure.”
A major concern about the elections board in recent years has been its handling of provisional ballots, which are not counted until questions are resolved about the eligibility of the voters who cast them. In 2010, Republican George Sarantou appeared narrowly to defeat Democrat Carol Contrada in an election for county commissioner. But that outcome was reversed after the board approved the count of provisional ballots, despite complaints that many of them appeared flawed.
Mr. Stainbrook was one of the loudest critics at the time. But since then, he says, the board has overseen five elections in which provisional ballots were not an issue. He insists that current problems at the board are not more acute than in past years, but simply get more exposure.
“You never knew what was going on before,” he says. “These things haven’t happened overnight, where it’s Ron and Jon’s fault. But now you’re seeing the sausage get made.”
The Blade has argued that if elections board members can’t develop and execute an effective reform plan within months, they should resign. Mr. Husted has the legal authority to fire the board if it doesn’t meet conditions he has set for its operations.
But there’s no guarantee that new board members, whom the county parties would pick, would be any more effective than the incumbents, or that shuffling the board alone would lead to real institutional change.
So the dynamic duo of Messrs. Stainbrook and Rothenbuhler deserve the opportunity to do what they say they will do. Let’s hope they put Lucas County voters in mind of other unlikely but effective teams — The Avengers, perhaps — rather than, say, Laurel and Hardy.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dkushma1