COLUMBUS — Putnam County is in search of two new Democrats for its elections board.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted on Tuesday wasted little time following through with his plan to fire two members of the board once a hearing officer determined the action was warranted.
Hearing officer Jon Allison recommended that Ann Dillinger and Martin Kuhlman be removed following repeated violations of Ohio’s open meeting and public records laws in 2008 and 2009.
“From the records provided at hearing it is clear that Ms. Dillinger and Mr. Kuhlman have diligently worked with other board members and staff to improve the board’s operations and performance,” Mr. Allison wrote. “But even the most well-operated public body has the obligation to operate openly and in conformance with the Sunshine Laws. As the record demonstrates, that obligation was not met on 17 occasions.”
Mr. Husted promptly issued letters informing both members of his decision.
“The citizens of Ohio expect a government that is fair, responsive, and open, and, to maintain the public’s confidence in the electoral process, I demand the same …,” the secretary of state wrote.
An assigned judge in county common pleas court had awarded $5,000 in statutory damages and $31,400 in attorney fees to Jeremy Price of Fort Jennings after he sued over the violations. The judge found the board didn’t give proper notice of meetings, what was discussed at those meetings, and what happened behind closed doors during execution sessions.
Lyle McKanna and Marie Heitmeyer, the two Republicans on the board when the violations occurred, are no longer members. Mr. Husted, also a Republican, has directed that they can never be reappointed.
The county Democratic Party has 15 days to submit replacements for Mr. Husted’s confirmation.
In a hearing earlier this month, Ms. Dillinger and Mr. Kuhlman argued that the violations weren’t intentional and shouldn’t rise to the level warranting their firing. They noted that they were still under administrative oversight by Mr. Husted’s Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Brunner, at the time the violations occurred, and no red flags were raised.
“Every step of the way, we were guided by [a staff member of] the secretary of state,” Ms. Dillinger said. “They were there every step of the way. When you do what they tell you and they still come after you, how much confidence can you have in the secretary of state?”
She said she doesn’t know whether she will fight the decision in court.
“In the past, none of us — Marie, Martin, and I — have ever said anything because of the lawsuit,” Ms. Dillinger said. “We were slammed, slammed, slammed. We were basically never allowed to defend ourselves. And now we intend to do so.”
Mr. Kuhlman said Mr. Husted focused too much on the 17 violations and didn’t take into consideration good things that had been happening in the office such as savings to taxpayers and precise vote tallies.
“We saved the county over $600,000 in waste that had been going on for four years,” he said. “As a taxpayer, you weigh that. ... I don’t think those things were given accurate consideration.
“I have to say there were infractions,” he said. “I can’t deny that. I’m more sick about that as any board member now or then. But I do not believe you just take the 17 occurrences over the 25 or 30 positive things that came out of that.”
Among other reasons, Ms. Brunner placed the board under oversight after what she characterized as the Election Day “meltdown” of voting machines during a 2007 special congressional election. The board was removed from oversight in 2010.
Last August, Mr. Husted fired two Montgomery County board members, also Democrats, after they insisted on scheduling weekend early voting hours for last November’s presidential election in violation of a directive he had issued. A federal judge later refused to reinstate them.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.