Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted informed five top officials of the Lucas County Board of Elections on Monday that he was removing them from their jobs because of their inability to put aside petty differences and bad management, but he gave them the right to appeal their firings on Thursday.
“This recommendation is the result of a four-week inquiry that revealed, and in many cases, reaffirmed, the depth of the dysfunction and the overall neglect of duty that has endured at the Lucas County Board of Elections,” Mr. Husted wrote in his letter.
The letter went to board members Ron Rothenbuhler, a Democrat; the two Republican board members, Jon Stainbrook and Tony DeGidio; Director Gina Kaczala, a Republican, and Deputy Director Dan DeAngelis, a Democrat.
A fourth board member, Democrat John Irish, was retained.
Mr. Husted said in his letter that his authority to remove employees was in the Ohio Revised Code, section 3501.16. The hearings, required for due process, are set for 9 a.m. Thursday in Government Center.
“In nearly every other county in the state, board members and staff are able to put aside their differences to meet their responsibilities to voters. In Lucas County, the petty infighting, personality conflicts, and sloppy administration have gone on long enough. I simply cannot jeopardize the integrity of future elections in Lucas County,” Mr. Husted wrote.
Local Democratic and Republican executive committees must nominate replacement board members, but the the secretary of state has the authority to reject those nominees and appoint candidates of his own choosing in extraordinary circumstances. Mr. Husted’s press secretary Matt McClellan said, however, it is premature to say whether Mr. Husted will use his power to circumvent local party officials.
“The secretary has been considering all his options, but we’re not even there yet, and we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Mr. McClellan said. “I think everything is on the table, but it’s premature to say he’s not going to accept the nominations when we don’t even have the names yet.”
Assistant Lucas County Prosecutor John Borell said the secretary of state has to follow a procedure set out in state law in filling vacancies on county election boards.
“The statute requires him to appoint the person recommended by the local party executive committee unless there’s an unusual circumstance to justify not appointing that person,” Mr. Borell said.
Ohio Revised Code section 3501.07 says the party’s executive committee may meet 15 to 60 days after a vacancy occurs and make a recommendation. The secretary of state must appoint that person “unless the secretary of state has reason to believe that the elector would not be a competent member of such board.”
If the secretary of state thinks the party’s nominee isn’t competent to do the job then he must say why in writing, the law says. The executive committee can then recommend someone else or file a writ of mandamus in court.
“It is premature to speculate would he accept the nominations or not,” Mr. McClellan said. “There have been no names put forward yet and no review of those people yet.”
Currently, the party executive committees are controlled by Mr. Stainbrook, who chairs the Lucas County Republican Party, and Mr. Rothenbuhler, who chairs the Lucas County Democratic Party, and both presumably would be able to control who gets recommended to replace them.
However, both chairmen are expected to face possible opponents for re-election this spring after the party’s central committees are installed. The local central committees that were elected in the May 6 election are due to be certified as elected no later than May 27.
The central committee meeting must be held between six and 15 days after the votes are certified, according to state law.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas said he believes it might be difficult for the secretary of state to reject the local parties’ nominees.
“I don’t think it is a summary decision he can make,” Mr. Douglas said. “There has to be some reason to reject a person, and it can’t just be that the political party nominated them. Political parties clearly, statutorily, have some role to play.”
Mr. Douglas suggested Secretary Husted could appoint an overseer or special consultant to directly manage the board of elections. The same authority that allowed Mr. Husted to appoint a transparency committee would, theoretically, allow him to appoint such an overseer, Mr. Douglas said.
He added that the dysfunction at the Lucas County board calls for special measures.
“It’s more than strife,” Mr. Douglas said. “It’s started to affect the confidence of people and the integrity of the system.”
The transparency committee was appointed April 7 by Mr. Husted after Mr. Stainbrook sent several emails to the secretary of state’s office complaining about irregularities in the way the elections office was being run after his associate, Meghan Gallagher, was removed as director on March 4 and replaced by Ms. Kaczala.
Mr. Stainbrook also tried to address what he saw as problems with the then-approaching election at a special meeting of the board on March 24, but the rest of the board voted to adjourn without addressing his issues.
Mr. Stainbrook’s behavior as a board member became a focus of the transparency committee. Ms. Kaczala criticized Mr. Stainbrook for calling her a “liar” on election night, and Mr. Stainbrook and Mr. Irish nearly came to blows when Mr. Irish tried to intervene in support of Ms. Kaczala. Mr. Stainbrook denied the “yelling and screaming” claimed by Ms. Kaczala, saying reporters in the area would have caught it on tape.
Mr. Stainbrook said he has no regrets about raising concerns. He said Lucas County had seen “seven flawless elections” under Ms. Gallagher’s directorship.
“If this is the solution to making sure that the Lucas County Board of Elections will be a body that the voters in Lucas County will have faith in and I’m going to be a casualty or collateral damage in the process of doing that, then so be it. It’s about the voters, not about me,” he said.
The election May 6 was hampered by lost machine data cards, a dual database required by holding a paper ballot election for Toledo City Council, and an hours-long dispute on election night prompted by Mr. Stainbrook’s alarm over five data cards that were identified in the vote count as missing but which, when found, contained no votes.
However, most of the transparency committee’s four hearings were focused on issues that preceded the May 6 election.
The four-person bipartisan committee unearthed complaints about bickering, sick leave abuse, sabotage, and tampering with voter records. It found that the board had failed for two years to send campaign finance reporting violations to the Ohio Elections Commission and that the board has failed since last year to schedule regular meetings.
It issued no written report and recommended the personnel actions on Friday after a short closed-door meeting.
More work ahead
The secretary of state’s actions occurred as the elections board has a lot of work to do. It still has to officially canvass, or count, the vote from the May 6 election and certify the results; it’s trying to move its operations to a new headquarters in time to hold Nov. 4 early voting there, and it is starting to gear up for a local levy election in August.
Both Ms. Kaczala and Mr. DeAngelis said they want to keep their jobs.
Mr. DeAngelis noted that he has been repeatedly threatened with firing since he started three years ago.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s business as usual,” Mr. DeAngelis said. “I would like to keep my job. I think we’re making positive strides, and I think Gina and I would be a good team moving forward. But I’ve been around this block before.”
Ms. Kaczala said people have been contacting the secretary of state’s office on her behalf.
“I was in that job for three weeks before the transparency committee came in,” Ms. Kaczala said.
Ms. Kaczala was administrative assistant under Ms. Gallagher since December, 2011, then was promoted to secretary of the board over Mr. Stainbrook’s opposition. Some of the tension in the board office during the last two years centered on the friction between Ms. Kaczala and Ms. Gallagher.
That friction continued on election night when Ms. Gallagher, who had been appointed as a Republican observer, refused to allow Ms. Kaczala to administer the oath to her.
Mr. Rothenbuhler said he would not resign and would make the case to keep his job to the hearing officer on Thursday.
“I have no intention of resigning. I’m going to attend the meeting. I at least want to state the case that I’ve stated,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said.
Mr. DeGidio and Mr. Irish did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The transparency committee was made up of Democrats Jennifer Brunner, a former Ohio secretary of state, and James Ruvolo, a former state Democratic chairman and now a political consultant, and Republicans Jon Allison, a Columbus lawyer, and Scott Borgemenke, a former assistant secretary of state.
Mr. Ruvolo said Monday that Mr. Irish was retained because he had not been on the board as long as the others and because he was the only one to support a previous effort by Mr. Husted to make staff and policy changes on the board in 2013.
Mr. Irish joined the board in October, 2012, while Mr. Rothenbuhler started in February, 2010, Mr. Stainbrook in June, 2011, and Mr. DeGidio in July, 2011.