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Published: Tuesday, 2/26/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

LUCAS COUNTY

State suggests firing top 2 local elections officials

Stainbrook and Rothenbuhler cross party lines to reject idea

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Jim Ruvolo, left, and Jon Allison recommend an overhaul of the Lucas County Board of Elections operating procedures. Jim Ruvolo, left, and Jon Allison recommend an overhaul of the Lucas County Board of Elections operating procedures.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Two appointees of the Ohio secretary of state issued a report Monday that sharply criticized the management practices of the Lucas County Board of Elections and recommended the board fire its two top staffers. But in an ironic show of bipartisan unity, two Democratic and Republican board members said that’s not going to happen.

Republican board member Jon Stainbrook said many of the claims made in the report aren’t true, but he added, “90 percent of what’s in this report we agree with.”

Ron Rothenbuhler, a Democrat and the chairman of the four-person board, said, “We’re going to get together and develop a response to their suggestions and see where we can make the appropriate moves to improve the board of elections. And the employees need to share in the resolution and not be part of the problem.”

The 10-page report was released in a news conference Monday in Government Center. It blasts the board of elections’ management procedures, saying the board lacks established policies and operates in a culture of “paranoia.” It recommends firing Republican Director Meghan Gallagher and Democrat Dan DeAngelis and replacing them by May 1.

The report also calls for the adoption of new policies and procedures by Aug. 1.

“We conclude that the Lucas County Board of Elections as presently situated is devoid of management leadership, is without most of the basic organizational structure, policies, and procedures necessary to function as an accountable government entity, and is culturally plagued by mistrust and fear,” the two consultants wrote.

Consultants Jim Ruvolo, a Democrat and former Ohio and Lucas County Democratic Party chairman from Ottawa Hills, and Jonathan Allison, a Republican lawyer from Columbus and top aide to former Gov. Bob Taft, were assigned to evaluate the board’s day-to-day operations by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. Mr. Husted put the board under administrative oversight in August.

Lucas County Democratic Party chairman Ron Rothenbuhler, left, and Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook, both members of the Lucas County Board of Elections, listen to the results of a state-ordered review of the board's procedures. Lucas County Democratic Party chairman Ron Rothenbuhler, left, and Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook, both members of the Lucas County Board of Elections, listen to the results of a state-ordered review of the board's procedures.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Ms. Gallagher, a longtime friend of Mr. Stainbrook and former elections worker, became director in March after the former director, Republican Ben Roberts, quit after a tenure of less than one year. Mr. Roberts and Mr. DeAngelis were both appointed when a previous director-deputy director team, Democrat Linda Howe and Republican Jeremy Demagall, were ordered fired by Mr. Husted over their noncompliance with his instructions on counting provisional ballots.

Fairness in doubt

Mr. Ruvolo’s recent involvement in the board of elections raised the question of whether he could be objective. He was appointed to the board in October, 2011, and resigned in January, 2012, a period when some of the episodes occurred that resulted in the board being brought under oversight. Mr. Ruvolo said it was a “fair question,” but said he thought it was important for him to participate.

“I didn’t volunteer for this. This wasn’t self-appointing. I knew there would be questions about my impartiality. Quite frankly, this is too important. That’s why I accepted,” he said.

Mr. Allison was chief of staff for Republican former Gov. Bob Taft and is a partner in the firm of Carpenter Lipps & Leland LLP. Law partner Dave Leland is, like Mr. Ruvolo, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman. Mr. Allison said he had no conversation with Mr. Leland about the Lucas County assignment and defended his Republican credentials.

Mr. Husted told The Blade on Monday that he was heartened by Mr. Stainbrook’s agreement with 90 percent of the report.

“These are respected, talented officials and we should stop focusing on the messenger and focus on the message,” Mr. Husted said. “If they do agree with 90 percent of what’s in the report, that’s a great start. I was encouraged by that comment.”

The report was thick with sweeping criticism, but thin on specific evidence. The two consultants were paid $7,500 each.

Culture of paranoia

The consultants said if the board refuses to follow their advice, “we strongly believe there will be no pathway to fundamentally improving the management and administration of the board.”

“There is mistrust and paranoia at every level of the board and that makes it very difficult for this board to function properly,” Mr. Allison said. He also said the board members “set the tone” by what they say in and out of board meetings, and that the public is paying attention.

It found “fiscal inexperience at the senior management level,” and no organizational table or written personnel disciplinary or employee evaluation policies. It cited “uncertain” campaign finance audit procedures.

In response, Mr. Stainbrook provided The Blade with a 52-page document titled “Lucas County Board of Elections Employee Manual,” including an organization chart, which he said each employee is given and must sign. He also provided The Blade with a 1¼-inch-thick binder titled “Lucas County Board of Elections Procedure Manual 2013 Draft” containing 52 sections relating to different facets of the elections office.

He also showed The Blade a series of emails between Ms. Gallagher and the Secretary of State’s office describing her frustrations at getting employees to “provide accurate and complete documentation” relating to auditing campaign finance reports.

Like Mr. Rothenbuhler, Mr. Stainbrook said board employees have to share the blame for the office’s problems.

“We do have policies. We do have some procedures. And we do have campaign finance stuff in place. I just don’t think these gentlemen looked far enough into the details to know what we actually have,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “We will do a line-by-line rebuttal and answer to this report. We will provide corroborating data showing what is true and what is not true.”

Budget debate

Mr. Stainbrook disputed the report’s claim that, “The board does not create an annual line-item-based budget for submission to the Board of County Commissioners,” and showed the Blade a one-page, line-item budget for 2013 and a three-page letter dated Dec. 27, 2012, from Ms. Gallagher and Mr. DeAngelis to the commissioners detailing the budget.

However, Democratic Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said that the board has not turned in a detailed budget on time for the last two budget cycles. He said the election board’s 2013 budget had to be prepared for it.

“We plugged in a number for them based on the historical costs of nonpresidential election years,” Mr. Gerken said.

The report also faulted the elections board for scattered and badly maintained records, a criticism Mr. Stainbrook said should be laid at the feet of board of commissioners, which have not yet provided the elections board with the single building he has requested for two years.

The report notes that records are stored in at least three locations.

Mr. Stainbrook said he became Republican Party chairman in 2008 and then got appointed to the elections board in 2011 to change what he said is a longstanding culture of incompetence and corruption that he said has worked to the disadvantage of Republicans.

“We started to clean up the board of elections and we were met with opposition,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “Republican keys were in the custody of Democrats. Records were stored all over the place.” He said much of the resistance has come from the staff itself, some of whom on the GOP side were allied with a faction that previously was in charge of the Lucas County Republican Party.

Mr. Ruvolo said that he spent 30 or 40 hours on the investigation, discussions with other boards of election, and discussions between themselves. He disputed that Mr. Stainbrook’s organizational chart was a true organizational chart, and said it was clear from their interviews that, “that there was no organization there. People were told different things at different times and didn’t know who to believe.”

“I stand by the report that Jon [Allison] and I did,” Mr. Ruvolo said.

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



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