Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted on Tuesday assigned two partly retired Lucas County judges to oversee the troubled Lucas County Board of Elections as it finishes certifying the results of the May 6 election.
Republican Peter Handwork, 72, formerly of the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals, and Democrat Charles Wittenberg, 67, formerly of Lucas County Common Pleas Court — but both still hearing cases as visiting judges — will be the bipartisan oversight team through the May 27 certification deadline.
They are expected to attend a special board meeting at 3 p.m. today. Mr. Husted said he was engaging the services of the two judges until he can make a final decision on the fate of three Lucas County board members and the board’s director, Gina Kaczala.
The secretary of state announced last week that he intended to remove Democratic board chairman Ron Rothenbuhler, Republican board members Tony DeGidio and Jon Stainbrook, and Ms. Kaczala, a Republican, pending the outcome of an administrative due process hearing. Only Democrat John Irish, the most recent appointee, would remain on the board.
He also determined tentatively to remove the deputy director, Democrat Dan DeAngelis. Mr. DeAngelis resigned and did not appeal his removal to the hearing officer.
“The judges will work with you as you complete the final certification of the May 6, 2014, elections,” Mr. Husted wrote in his letter to the board members announcing the temporary appointment.
Despite being targeted for removal, the board members and the staff were still working to finish certifying the May 6 election.
Judge Handwork said he believes he can help the board, though he has never had any election-related jobs.
“When it first came up, I think I realized this is something that needs to be done that doesn’t have controversy involved,” Mr. Handwork said. He said his training as a jurist and ability to listen to competing viewpoints should prove useful.
Judge Wittenberg also said he had never worked for the elections board, but said he was willing to help restore lost public trust in the voting process.
“Judge Handwork and I will be there to oversee them, not to supervise them, but just to make sure they do a true and accurate and timely completion of the vote certification,” Judge Wittenberg said.
Mr. Husted also said in his letter that he would assign staff from his office to help the Lucas County board staff finish the required duties of verifying the election results, and validating and counting provisional ballots.
Judge Handwork retired last year from the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals. He continues as a visiting judge and is the leader of Handwork Mediation Services. He was a Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge from 1977 until he joined the court of appeals in 1983.
Judge Wittenberg declined to run for re-election to Lucas County Common Pleas Court in 2006 and has been active as a visiting judge since. Before being elected to the common pleas court, he was a part-time magistrate in Toledo Municipal Court and a Sylvania school board member in the 1980s and 1990s.
Both judges notified the Ohio Supreme Court that they have to suspend hearing cases while they are involved in the board of elections process, Judge Wittenberg said.
He presided over the case on demolishing the Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin. The judge ruled in 2011 that the county commissioners had the authority to raze the building, a ruling upheld by the appeals court.
This appointment is short-term, but there has been talk of both judges being appointed to vacancies on the board if Mr. Husted follows through with his tentative decision to remove three board members. He said he is waiting for a report from the hearing officer, deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Damschroder.
The recommendations to remove the five elections officials came from a four-member bipartisan “transparency committee” that Mr. Husted appointed in April in response to complaints from Mr. Stainbrook about misuse of taxpayer dollars, failing to follow proper election procedures, and alleged favoritism toward Democrats.
Those complaints were made after his ally, former Director Meghan Gallagher, was removed on March 4 and replaced with Ms. Kaczala.
The committee held four lengthy hearings, unearthing anecdotes and allegations of bickering, tampering, sabotage, sick leave abuse, nepotism, and failure by the board to hold regular meetings and to refer flawed campaign finance reports to the Ohio Elections Commission.