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Published: Monday, 8/20/2012

Hearing held on proposed removal of Montgomery County elections officials

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Democratic members of the Montgomery Board of Elections in danger of losing their jobs insisted today that they felt their votes adding weekend hours for in-person early voting would augment, not violate, an order from Ohio’s top elections official setting uniform hours across the state.

But their two votes have been deemed “nonfeasance” in the eyes of Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted. Today’s proceeding before an independent hearing officer was part of the procedure for removing the board’s chairman, Thomas J. Ritchie, Sr., and member Dennis Lieberman from the panel.

“What we’ve heard is attempted justification for blatant disregard (for Mr. Husted’s directive)…,” said Principal Assistant Attorney General Richard N. Coglianese, acting as Mr. Husted’s attorney.

“It is clear,” he said. “It says these are the hours that boards of elections are to be open. It applies everywhere in the state. It applies uniformly in the state. It applies so that voters in any county would be treated the same.

“But what we have now are two board members that have attempted to disregard clear direction from the secretary of state and to turn the justification by claiming there’s some unknown ambiguity that no reasonable person reading the directive would find,” Mr. Coglianese said.

But Don McTigue, attorney for the two board members, countered that a Montgomery County assistant prosecutor had seen ambiguity in Mr. Husted’s order. Mr. McTigue also accused Mr. Husted’s office of ordering the board to hold an illegal meeting to accomplish what he wanted.

“We have an order issued by (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt) Damschroder to hold this meeting, which violates the Sunshine Law, which I believe is a very legitimate issue that you’re going to have to consider here…,” Mr. McTigue told the hearing officer, Columbus attorney Jon Allison.

“To have board members in the context of a forced meeting that would violate the Sunshine Law and requiring the board members to do essentially something that is unlawful and penalizing them because they didn’t do what you wanted them to do in this unlawful meeting is something that just doesn’t seem to smell right,” he said.

Today’s hearing is essentially a showdown between Mr. Husted and Democratic members of an urban county board of elections who have not abided by his directive last week setting specific expanded weekday hours for the casting of absentee ballots in person. The directive made no mention of weekend hours.

A small rally was held outside Mr. Husted’s office building in support of the two Democrats. Protestors were expected to later march to a meeting of the Franklin County Board of Elections in hopes a similar 2-2 vote will lead to another showdown with Mr. Husted.

One protestor’s sign had a picture of Mr. Husted, declaring him to be “Secretary of Suppression.” Another read, “Moses said, ‘Let my people go…and vote on Saturdays’.”

Montgomery County’s bipartisan board of elections had unanimously voted last December to schedule in-person early voting at the board of elections on two Saturdays and Sundays preceding the Nov. 6 election.

Mr. Leiberman said he interpreted Mr. Husted’s directive as addressing only regular business hours of the board, leaving the door open for the board to schedule irregular hours on weekends. The board deadlocked 2-2 on Friday morning with the Democrats backing weekend voting and Republicans siding with Mr. Husted’s directive.

Mr. Husted did not simply break the 2-2 tie as he does in similar situations with a handful of other urban counties, including Lucas. Instead, Mr. Damschroder sent a letter ordering the board to reconvene that afternoon to rescind the Democrats’ motion.

The board did reconvene, but Mr. Lieberman refused to take back his motion. The board then adjourned with the support of the Republican members. Mr. Husted then broke the tie in favor of the Republicans’ position, and immediately suspended the two Democratic members.

Mr. Allison said he hopes to make his recommendation as to whether the board members should be removed from office by the end of the week.

“I was offended by the letter, because it was a veiled threat…that I’d be terminated by the secretary of state,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I viewed that as saying if you don’t take back your First Amendment right to free speech…and do exactly what we tell you do, and be puppet that I want you to be, then I’m going to fire you.

“I wasn’t put on the board of elections to be a puppet,” he said.



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