Saying the Lucas County Board of Elections’ “culture of dysfunction … must come to an end once and for all,” Secretary of State Jon Husted on Thursday removed three board members and served notice that he would appoint no one with a connection to “the problems of the past.”
Removed were Republican board members Jon Stainbrook and Tony DeGidio and Democratic board member and chairman Ron Rothenbuhler. Democratic board member John Irish was retained but suspended until the other new board members are sworn in.
Mr. Husted retained Director Gina Kaczala as interim director for administrative and operational continuity, at least until a new board is appointed. And he appointed LaVera Scott, the elections services manager, as interim deputy director, at least until a new board is sworn in.
Mr. Husted released a 27-page, no-holds-barred indictment of the elections board written by deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Damschroder, following a daylong hearing in Toledo on May 15.
“The Transparency Committee concluded that the cancers inherent within the Board of Elections are so advanced, and the long-term prognosis so severe, that the prospect of this Board of Elections healing itself is simply not a viable solution from their perspective,” wrote Mr. Damschroder, the hearing officer.
The report found a rash of troubling anecdotes and behaviors, among them failure to file campaign-finance reports; failure to properly audit election officials’ numbers and training; failure to properly set or follow an agenda for board meetings; not having a policy for hiring, firing, and managing seasonal employees; not having a policy regarding nepotism; not filling vacant election positions in a timely manner; failure to have proper communications between the staff and board, and failure to maintain decorum at the board.
Specifically, it faulted all three fired board members for failing to refer flawed campaign-finance reports to the Ohio Elections Commission for two years, for failing to schedule regular board meetings since October, as required by state statute, and for failing to implement the so-called Allison-Ruvolo report issued in early 2013 that recommended adoption of new policies and dismissal of two top staffers.
The secretary of state excused Mr. Irish from the firing mainly because he was the only member of the board to try to implement the Allison-Ruvolo recommendations.
Mr. Irish said he had no objection to his temporary suspension. “There’s really nothing I can do as a single individual, so I would be in limbo to do anything anyhow,” he said.
He disagreed with the report’s conclusion that he showed conduct unbecoming of a public official when he went nose-to-nose with Mr. Stainbrook on election night at a time when Mr. Stainbrook was publicly accusing Ms. Kaczala of being a liar over the alleged disappearance of five voting-machine data cards.
The dispute occurred after midnight in the election counting center in front of several members of the media and ended when a Lucas County sheriff’s deputy told Mr. Irish to step away.
“I feel that my behavior was necessary that night to put an end to the chaos,” Mr. Irish said.
Ironically, one of the criticisms directed at Mr. Rothenbuhler was that he didn’t step in to quell the fight over the missing cards. The cards turned out to have been used in machine-testing and not voting.
‘A good move’
Mr. Irish agreed with the idea of both parties appointing a retired judge to the board. “That will be a good move on both parties’ part,” he said.
Ms. Kaczala said she was happy to keep her job, and called on the secretary of state to appoint board members who will support the staff.
The 27-page report repeated many of the anecdotes aired in what turned out to be five days of hearings with unsworn testimony during April and May, much of it directed at Mr. Stainbrook.
Ironically, it was Mr. Stainbrook‘s complaints about staff mismanagement, following the firing of his ally Meghan Gallagher as director March 4, that prompted the appointment of the bipartisan Transparency Committee and ultimately led to his own firing, along with Mr. DeGidio and Mr. Rothenbuhler.
One anecdote the hearing officer said he found “troubling” was the claim by Mr. DeGidio that the local Republican Party owed him money for past representation, and that it was held out to him that he might be offered a Lucas County judgeship in exchange for dropping that bill.
“Mr. DeGidio alleged he and Mr. Stainbrook had discussed an agreement where the Lucas County Republican Party would recommend him to a judgeship, and in exchange, the legal bills owed by the party would ‘go away,’ ” Mr. Damschroder reported, saying he found it “troubling.”
Mr. Stainbrook called the allegation “absurd,” for which no evidence was provided. He accused Mr. DeGidio of lying to smear him because of Mr. Stainbrook’s attempt to force him off the board because he was living in Youngstown.
The hearing officer also recounted the allegation that Mr. Stainbrook had texted a seasonal employee at the board’s warehouse and told him to slow down his work. Mr. Stainbrook vehemently denied the allegation, and has allowed a Blade reporter to view his cell phone account online to disprove the claim. Mr. Damschroder recounted the accusation, but said he couldn’t tell if it was true.
The report also appeared to believe as credible that Mr. Stainbrook colluded with Mr. Rothenbuhler to avoid sending flawed campaign-finance reports to Columbus, and that “the committee was aware of no evidence that Mr. Stainbrook had worked to undo the campaign-finance referral log-jam.”
However, Mr. Stainbrook on Thursday provided copies of emails that he said he gave to the Transparency Committee that he claimed proved he had urged Ms. Gallagher to put the campaign-finance referrals on the agenda.
One of the ongoing problems with the elections board was Mr. Stainbrook’s perennial complaint that his issues were not being placed on the agenda. The Damschroder report faulted Mr. Rothenbuhler in particular for failing to schedule regular meetings.
“The board ... treated every meeting as a special meeting, which limited the ability of at least one board member, Mr. Stainbrook, to place items on the agenda,” the report said.
“It’s disturbing that these hearings were done with a court reporter but nobody’s sworn in,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “It’s all hearsay.”
Mr. Rothenbuhler was also faulted for failing to step in between Mr. Irish and Mr. Stainbrook when the two nearly came to blows on election night.
Mr. Rothenbuhler and Mr. DeGidio could not be reached for comment.
Under state law, the secretary of state fills vacant positions on the four-person governing board, but he must take those recommended by the executive committees of the two political parties unless he deems them to be incompetent. At present, those appointments would be made largely by Mr. Rothenbuhler, as Democratic Party chairman, and Mr. Stainbrook, as Republican Party chairman. However, Mr. Rothenbuhler’s term as chairman ends Monday and he has said he will not seek re-election. Mr. Stainbrook is also up for re-election as chairman in the next two weeks and he is expected to seek re-election.
“Be advised that I will not appoint any person with ties to the problems of the past. The record established over the years is replete with players, new and old, that have contributed to the systemic issues that have led us to where we are today,” Mr. Husted said.
A suggestion that has been considered locally has been for at least two of the three vacant seats to go to Republican Judge Peter Handwork and Democratic Judge Charles Wittenberg, who have been acting as a bipartisan oversight under appointment by Mr. Husted.
Judge Wittenberg said he and Judge Handwork work well together and he would welcome being appointed to one of the two Democratic board positions. Mr. Handwork said he would strongly consider it. Both said they have not been approached by their parties about possible appointment.