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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

COMMENTARY

A judicial solution for the elections board fiasco

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

The Lucas County Board of Elections saga has threatened to go on and on, and under various scenarios it still could go on forever.

But there is a possible remedy.

It is to reconstitute the board and appoint retired judges as members.

This need not necessarily be a permanent arrangement. It might be put in place only until the board and the functions of the elections board are stabilized.

But stability might also be a nice permanent condition.

Here is the situation: Secretary of State Jon Husted has notified three members of the board and two administrators — board members Ron Rothenbuhler, Jon Stainbrook, and Tony DeGidio as well as Director Gina Kaczala and Deputy Director Dan DeAngelis — that he intends to remove them because of a culture of “dysfunction and overall neglect of duty.”

Those five have a right to an appeal. But if the elections board members are eventually replaced, the law states that their replacements should be suggested by the executive committees of the local Democratic and Republican parties. Two of the people to be replaced are the chairmen of those parties.

The one thing that everyone can agree on, even the principals, is that there is indeed a culture of dysfunction. But can functional replacements be chosen by the same people and process that has given us the dysfunction?

We should not add more craziness to the comedy of errors we have already seen.

This, I fear the secretary of state might unintentionally do.

The only way out of this mess is to establish a process that is at least one step removed from politics.

We need a sober and professional Board of Elections. One way would be for the secretary of state to appoint an overseer to manage the board, as former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas has suggested. But another, and better, way would be to appoint retired local judges to the board.

And the best path to their appointment is not forcible removal but voluntary acceptance.

The rational path is for all members of the Board of Elections to step aside for the good of a competent, fair, and dignified election process. Then the two party chairmen could submit to the secretary of state a list of retired judges who would constitute a new election board — two nominal Republicans and two nominal Democrats who nonetheless would be above reproach and return credibility and civility to the administration of the elections in this county.

I am thinking of people like Judge Andy Devine and Judge Peter Handwork, both retired, and of retired state Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick, and of other retired judges such as Charles Doneghy and Charles Wittenberg. That’s the type of people who could and should serve, but not the only people.

I spoke with Judge Devine, who is 92, and he told me he is too old to serve. But his mind is still keen and he is inspiring rather than embarrassing. He thinks depoliticizing the board is vital and says he remembers when the two party chairmen ate lunch together at Dyers and worked together on the big stuff. The key, he said, is the character of the people who join the Board of Elections.

Judge Handwork is equally positive about the idea. And he told me he is willing to serve. He said judges know how to listen and problem solve. We need reform, he said. Otherwise, we put the election process itself at risk. We mock democracy.

Mr. Stainbrook told me he thinks the idea is wise and constructive, and he embraces it with two caveats: that the Democratic chairman is also willing and that the judges serve for one year.

This puts the ball in Mr. Rothenbuhler’s court. And Mr. Husted’s.

To restore the election process in Lucas County we need serious people on the Board of Elections — people who are respected, nonpartistan, and above reproach. This is not rocket science. We can do this.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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