COLUMBUS — Two members of the Putnam County Board of Elections made the case Friday that public-meeting and open-records law violations on their watch do not warrant their firing from the board.
Democrats Ann Dillinger and Martin Kuhlman urged a hearing officer not to agree with Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted’s inclination to remove the pair after a judge awarded more than $36,000 in damages and attorney fees to a Fort Jennings resident. Jeremy Price sued over violations of state open-records and public-meetings laws.
Hearing officer Jon Allison is expected to issue his recommendation to Mr. Husted in about two weeks.
“These are technical errors that lawsuits look for,” Ms. Dillinger said. “Are they so bad that I should be dismissed?”
She and Mr. Kuhlman argued that they are not lawyers and thought they were complying with the law when, the court ruled, they failed to give proper notice to the public about meetings, what would be discussed, and what was happening behind closed doors during executive sessions.
A judge found the 17 violations that occurred between March, 2008, and January, 2009, to be “egregious, repeated, and deprived the public of information that they were required to provide.”
“That doesn’t sound like, ‘Whoops, no big deal’,” Principal Assistant Attorney General Richard Coglianese said. “Ignorance of the law is never an excuse.”
The Republican members during that time, Lyle McKanna and Marie Heitmeyer, are no longer members. Mr. Husted has directed that they cannot be reappointed to the board in the future.
The dispute is just the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the board, including what then-Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner characterized as an Election Day “meltdown” of voting machines during a 2008 special congressional election.
Two days later she put the board on watch. She released the board from administrative oversight in March, 2009, offering congratulations for its improvements.
Mr. Kuhlman noted that the board was under oversight during the period when the violations occurred. He said a representative of the secretary of state’s office was present during the meetings. No red flags were raised, he said.
The board members did not have attorneys with them, but county Prosecutor Gary Lammers testified on their behalf, suggesting some punishment short of termination would be appropriate. The members suggested a possible return of the board to watch status.
“There was no maliciousness, ill will, or malintent to hide or necessarily deceive anyone, let alone the public, with these types of violation,” Mr. Lammers said. “Technically, they probably do constitute violations.”
But Mr. Coglianese said that elections boards should be held to a higher standard so that the public can be confident in the election results.
“Once that confidence is lost, in a sense, our sense of democracy is lost,” he said.
The case marks the second time in less than a year that Mr. Husted has called a hearing to determine whether members of a county elections board should be removed. In August, he fired two Montgomery County board members, also Democrats, after they insisted on setting weekend early voting hours for last November’s presidential election in violation of a directive he had issued.
Mr. Allison also served as hearing officer in that case and agreed that the firings were warranted.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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