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Published: Thursday, 4/7/2005

Lucas County elections board is told to resign; Blackwell threatens firings if necessary

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell announced yesterday he is removing the entire Lucas County board of elections because of problems stemming from the November election, but all four board members said they are not quite ready to budge.

If they do not resign, a spokesman for Mr. Blackwell said, they will be fired.

Republicans Sam Thurber and Bernadette Noe - who had already announced plans to resign - now say they will review their options to make sure their reputations are protected. Democrats Paula Ross and Diane Brown, the chairman of the board, also said they are not inclined to step down right away.

"We need a couple of days to digest this report," said Ms. Noe, who first voiced her intent to resign in December but had not yet set a date. "I have always said that these two [Republican] board members should serve at the pleasure of the [party] chairman."

The county GOP had been without a permanent chairman until last night, when former state Rep. Sally Perz was elected to the post.

The action by Mr. Blackwell, a Republican, comes on the heels of an investigation conducted by aides Richard Weghorst, the state director of campaign finance, and Faith Lyon, liaison to county boards of elections.

"Mr. Weghorst and Ms. Lyons conducted an extensive review and investigation of the Lucas County board of elections," said Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo. "Based on their investigation, they recommended that Secretary Blackwell begin removal proceedings of all four board members. Secretary Blackwell has agreed, and accepted their recommendations to begin removal proceedings."

"It is the investigators' determination that the members of the Lucas County board of elections, at the time of the November, 2004, election, were directly responsible for the inefficient and unorganized management of the election process in their county," the report said. It cited 13 areas of "grave concern," including:

●Failure to maintain ballot security.

●Inability to implement and maintain a trackable system for voter ballot reconciliation.

●Failure to prepare and develop a plan for the processing of the voluminous amount of voter registration forms received.

●Issuance and acceptance of incorrect absentee ballot forms.

●Failure to maintain the security of poll books during the official canvass.

Among other things, the report states that some optical scan ballots received from a private printing company in Dayton sat unattended in an unsecured warehouse for nearly a month before the presidential election. It states that Democrat Paula Hicks-Hudson, the elections director who quit in January, and Republican Jill Kelly, the deputy director, were "aware that the overflow [ballots were] being stored in an unsecured location on the third floor" of the county warehouse on Berdan Avenue.

The ballots are supposed to be locked in a secure location under double lock-and-key, with the Republicans in control of one key and Democrats the other. Some were, but those that could not fit in the ballot room at the elections office were shipped to the county warehouse for storage until the election.

"Ballots must be secured at all times by a board of elections," the report declared.

Other problems outlined in the 24-page report and 19 supporting documents detail problems with day-to-day management of the office.

"No one is more aware than I am of the problems at the board of elections," said Ms. Ross. "We have taken a lot of steps because of problems that were evident in the November election. I think there were some inaccuracies in the report," both factual and in the interpretation of those facts.

"At this point, I have not sent a resignation letter and have no immediate plans to do so," Ms. Ross said.

Ms. Noe said, "It is important for everyone to remember that we had a good, fair, and accurate election in November, despite the fact that we were at the epicenter of the national election."

"I'm very saddened. I like these people," said Jill Kelly, director of the elections board. "I wasn't here for the whole period of time on which he is basing the comments in his report, so I can't second-guess what [Mr. Blackwell] does. But I can say they were four very supportive people of me in my attempts to do everything I could to make this place shipshape."

The upheaval at the board comes less than a month before a special election set for May 3, for which Ms. Kelly said the office is prepared. She said absentee ballots are being mailed to voters who requested them and that other preparations are continuing. She said changes on the board should not upset the vote, saying workers were moving forward.

"We're ready to roll," she said.

The office is short on experienced leaders. Ms. Kelly has worked at the elections office for just under a year. Deputy Director Michael Badik joined the office last month.

This is not the first time Mr. Blackwell has decided to remove an entire county board. After the 2001 elections, investigators recommended that the Miami County elections board be swept clean, but, threatened with removal, all four members stepped down.

He removed two members of the Butler County elections board in 2000 and one member of the Ashtabula County board in 2001.

Lucas County board of elections members are paid $17,261 a year. After the current board members step down or are removed from their posts, the county Democratic and Republican parties will submit names of party members to Mr. Blackwell, who will appoint two new Democrats and two Republicans to the county elections board.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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