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Published: Sunday, 8/26/2012

Elections board defies long trend of collaboration

Local panel 2nd in state in deadlocks

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Jon Stainbrook, left, and Pete Gerken. Jon Stainbrook, left, and Pete Gerken.
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By design, the Lucas County Board of Elections is the most blatantly partisan government agency there is.

In fact, it is mandated by law to be divided equally in the numbers of employees between the two major political parties. And it is not uncommon for the four-member governing board — made up of two Democrats and two Republicans — to include the county party chairmen.

But despite being hyper-partisan in one respect, it has always been a place where Democrats and Republicans managed to collaborate — if for no other reason than to keep a close eye on each other and the voting process.

Not so recently.

The Republicans and Democrats on the board have clashed so much in recent months over personnel, ballot security, and the time and location of early voting that the Ohio secretary of state has stepped in to take over direct control.

‘Special masters'

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted on Aug. 13 imposed "special masters" to supervise the director, Republican Meghan Gallagher, and deputy director, Democrat Daniel DeAngelis, at least through the Nov. 6 general election.

Boards of elections are expected to resolve their disagreements, but when they split 2-2 along partisan lines, the issue is sent to the secretary of state to break the tie.

The Lucas County board has sent 19 tie votes to the secretary of state this year. Only Summit County has deadlocked more often, with 22. Butler County has put up four tie votes, and Montgomery, Pickaway, Geauga, and Hamilton counties each recorded one tie vote during 2012.

Lucas County's tie votes have centered heavily on personnel issues. Ten involved hiring that the board could not agree on. And six recent ones, cast on Aug. 6, involved disputes over where to put the early vote center. Mr. Husted has not broken any of the tie votes relating to the early vote center, leaving Lucas County uncertain about a location.

Mr. Husted said in a tie-breaking letter to the board in July, "It is unfortunate and pathetic that the Lucas County Board of Elections is continually unable to agree on the staffing and organization of the board."

Democrats and Republicans blame each other for the turmoil.

Jerry Chabler, a longtime Lucas County Democratic operative, said politicians can be partisan without undermining public trust in the elections process.

"Jim Brennan was a very partisan Republican," Mr. Chabler said, referring to the late Ottawa Hills businessman who was Republican chairman off and on from 1977 to 1998. "Bill Boyle and Jim Ruvolo were very partisans Democrats, and they worked together," he said, referring to two former Democratic Party chairmen.

"This board is not working in the best interests of the voters in the county," Mr. Chabler asserted. "If they made deals in the past it was in the best interest of the voters, the Republicans and the Democrats."

Although that might be a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, deals indeed made, sometimes to let each other's candidates go unopposed on the ballot, sometimes on matters totally unrelated to politics. In the 1980s, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Boyle, and Mr. Ruvolo formed a business partnership that acquired a federal license for a local cellular telephone operation. The partnership made a tidy profit — reported at more than $300,000 for each of the three partners — when it sold its interest in the license in 1987. Mr. Boyle and Mr. Ruvolo both declined to comment. At the time Mr. Brennan and Mr. Boyle were members of the county board of elections.

Pointing fingers

Current Democrats put the blame for the controversy at the elections board on Jon Stainbrook, the local Republican Party chairman since 2008, who has made enemies among both Democrats and Republicans for his crusade against what he describes as incompetence and corruption at the elections board.

Mr. Stainbrook said Democrats are up in arms because he's putting up a fight against "dirty tricks" that they've gotten away with for years, with what he contends was a lack of push-back from his Republican predecessors on the elections board.

"The Democrats have had their way for years. We finally have Republicans standing up for the Republican Party and they don't like it," Mr. Stainbrook said.

As evidence of incompetence and corruption, Mr. Stainbrook cites the 2010 Lucas County commissioner race in which a large number of provisional ballots — cast by voters who didn't initially have adequate identification, who were in the wrong precinct, or who were on record as having requested an absentee ballot — were approved by the board and changed the outcome of the election to result in Democrat Carol Contrada beating Republican George Sarantou by 193 votes.

A Democratic board director and Republican deputy director were fired in March, 2011, by the secretary of state for counting 114 provisional ballots in that election that the secretary of state's office had deemed ineligible. A Blade investigation found additionally hundreds of ballots with flaws, but board officials contended that the flaws did not justify rejecting the ballots.

The harsh rhetoric may be a symptom of the split in the country at the height of a hotly contested presidential campaign, but to Pete Gerken, president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners and the area's top elected Democrat, the partisanship locally is unprecedented.

"In the past elections I've been around, since 1996, even though Republicans and Democrats have their differences in campaigns out in the street and in forums, the level of partisanship that this board has been subjected to, led by the Republican contingent, is beyond what I've ever seen or expected," he said. "Even back in the days of the Brennans, Ujvagis, Beazleys you never had this."

Peter Ujvagi and Michael Beazley are former Lucas County Democratic chairmen who are now in government jobs — Mr. Ujvagi as Lucas County administrator and Mr. Beazley as Oregon city administrator.

Rear-guard forays

In addition to fending off attacks from Democrats, Mr. Stainbrook has been fighting rear-guard forays against him by disgruntled members of his own party, a carryover from the bitter fights of 2008 and 2010 in which Mr. Stainbrook defeated the so-called "old guard" of the party that was mainly loyal to former GOP party chairman Tom Noe, whose corruption Mr. Stainbrook helped expose.

Noe is now serving an 18-year sentence in an Ohio prison for the theft of millions of dollars from the state's injured workers' trust fund. He concocted an elaborate rare-coin scam that he sold to top Ohio Republican officeholders and bureaucrats on whom he lavished campaign cash, expensive dinners, and vacations.

GOP protest

About a dozen people representing local Republican-affiliated groups picketed Government Center on Aug. 14 and co-wrote a letter to the secretary of state calling for removal of all four elections board members.

"Both Republicans and Democrats have caused chaos with their ongoing partisan battles. It is sad and really an embarrassment to the county and the state of Ohio," said the letter, co-signed by leaders of the Maumee County Republican Club, the Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition, the Greater Toledo Area Republican Club, and the Fallen Timbers Republican Club.

Mr. Stainbrook dismissed the protest as a fake, made up of disgruntled GOP opponents or fired board of elections workers. He pointed out that he was re-elected chairman in 2012 with only four "no" votes and more than 200 "yes" votes.

"This group does not represent the Republican Party. This is just sour grapes," Mr. Stainbrook said.

Mr. Stainbrook said it's Mr. Gerken who's been creating trouble on the elections board by "interfering" in board operations, with the Democratic county commission president attending elections board meetings for the past year to "direct" the Democrats on the elections board.

Mr. Stainbrook said he was outraged to learn last September that Democrats had copies of the Republican keys to rooms in which ballots and voting machines are kept, but that County Administrator Ujvagi's office dragged its feet in re-keying the locks. To protect the integrity of elections, sensitive equipment and documents are kept behind double-locked doors that can be opened only by both sets of keys.

Mr. Stainbrook said the Democratic-controlled county commissioners' office waited 19 days to rectify the problem, which overlapped with the canvassing of votes from the September, 2011, municipal primary election.

"The Democrats had copies of the Republican keys for the warehouse, the GEMS room, and these are where the ballots and memory cards are stored under dual lock and key so not one party is compromised. They didn't care," Mr. Stainbrook said. GEMS stands for global election management system, which controls the database and ballot layout for touch-screen and paper voting.

Mr. Gerken said the problem of the keys never came to his attention but was handled by the assistant county administrator at the time, Bridgette Kabat.

Meeting attendee

Mr. Stainbrook said Mr. Gerken's frequent attendance at board meetings is inappropriate, especially because he appears to be trying to influence the board members in an election in which he is a candidate. Mr. Gerken is up for re-election this year.

His Republican opponent for county commissioner, John Marshall, filed a protest this month with the secretary of state accusing Mr. Gerken of going to board meetings and signaling or calling out to Democratic board members Ron Rothenbuhler and Keila Cosme, telling them how to vote.

"From my vantage point, two rows behind Commissioner Gerken, I could clearly hear and see he was talking to and making hand signals specifically to steer the votes of both board members Ron Rothenbuhler, Chairman, and former Judge Keila Cosme, and to a lesser degree to Daniel DeAngelis," Mr. Marshall said.

"It's no wonder why nothing can get done in a meeting with a sitting County Commissioner pull[ing] the strings … " Mr. Marshall wrote.

Mr. Marshall forwarded his complaint to the secretary of state's regional representative, Tim Monaco, who was also in attendance at that meeting, and said he saw Mr. Monaco warn Mr. Rothenbuhler, the elections board chairman, "if Mr. Gerken didn't be quiet, he'd have to leave the room."

Mr. Monaco referred questions to Matt McClellan, the spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

"Tim Monaco simply conveyed to Mr. Rothenbuhler that he should work to maintain control of the room during the meeting," Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Gerken said he's within his rights as a citizen to attend every board of elections meeting if he wants. Those meetings are open to the public, by law. He said he has not tried to tell the board members how to vote.

Early-vote center

He said the only information he conveyed to the elections board from the audience Aug. 6 concerned the Lucas County Recreation Center that Mr. Stainbrook and fellow Republican Anthony DeGidio voted to use as the early vote center.

"I indicated to Ron, the chair, that the Rec Center is under lease and is not available," Mr. Gerken said.

He said that Mr. Rothenbuhler and Ms. Cosme were elected by the Democratic Party's central committee and executive committee, of which he is a member.

"They haven't been the problem here. They're not why we're under administrative oversight today," Mr. Gerken said.

"This is a public meeting. I've always followed the rules and conducted myself professionally. As the president of the board of county commissioners who fund these operations, and are responsible for making sure it's run appropriately, I do come to the meetings," Mr. Gerken said.

Mr. Stainbrook acknowledged that the level of partisanship has increased and said he asked Mr. Husted to take over the elections board temporarily. He played down the board's dissension as largely over issues that do not affect the integrity of the elections conducted by the board.

He said he and Mr. Rothenbuhler converse regularly, they just don't agree.

"I said to Ron, ‘We're going to have a dialogue, but we're not going to make back-room deals,'?" said Mr. Stainbrook.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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