MERCER COUNTY Upset panel wants Unilect meeting

Some commission members considered resigning over the situation.
MERCER, Pa. -- Angered because Mercer County commissioners met Friday with a representative from Unilect without notifying them, the Independent Election Commission members agreed Tuesday to try to arrange to meet with a Unilect representative before the end of the month.
Unilect is the California company that sold the county computerized voting machines and software in 2001. There were major problems with those machines in the November election, resulting in thousands of lost votes. The commission was named by county commissioners, who comprise the county election board, to determine why the problems occurred and to make recommendations for the future.
All three commissioners attended the election commission meeting Tuesday and listened without comment to the criticisms. However, after the meeting, they distributed a statement, signed by all three, saying they understood commissioners and the commission "were to act independently from one another."
What they did
Commissioners said they met Friday with Unilect President Jack Gebel, as well as county election employees and courthouse information systems staff to prepare for the May primary election. "In that spirit, [of working independently] as well as understanding our obligation to be educated and prepared for the 2005 primary election, we were able to arrange a brief meeting with [Gerbel]," they said. They added the meeting was "imperative in order to start the interactive and educational process for our departments."
They explained that even before the commission issues its anticipated report Jan. 3, commissioners must name an interim election director, advertise, interview and hire a new director and prepare paperwork for the primary election.
However, the meeting Friday was not meant to circumvent the Commission, they stated. "It was our understanding that you have had your questions answered in your prior communication with [Unilect]." They added the commission never asked commissioners to arrange further dialogue with Unilect.
Committee members had only harsh words for commissioners. Chairman Michael Coulter chided them, stating that holding secretive meetings with Unilect is not the way to restore voter confidence among residents.
Several members said they had considered resigning from the committee or advising that the committee disband after learning of the meeting.
However, members agreed yesterday, after discussion, to continue their work.
Rev. Don Wilson, Mercer County Republican chairman, said he found it especially disturbing that a week ago, while the committee was meeting, commissioners already knew the Unilect official would be coming and failed to inform them.
Commissioners' responsibility
Wilson said the committee' s investigation has shown that while Election Director James Bennington made mistakes, the greater mistakes were made by commissioners who showed "no leadership, no oversight, no sign of accepting responsibility."
Wilson said a commissioner told him they thought the committee was done with Unilect after its questioning of a Unilect official several weeks ago in a conference call. However, committee members in recent weeks had publicly stated they wanted to ask Unilect more questions.
"I feel betrayed and misled by this," County Democratic Chairman Robert Lark agreed. He added that whether nor not the committee had further questions for Unilect, commissioners should have invited them to the meeting.
After the meeting, commissioner Brian Beader acknowledged that "maybe it wasn't the best idea" to meet with Unilect without inviting the commission. Commissioner Michele Brooks said she is looking forward to seeing the commission's recommendation and said the commissioners have demonstrated confidence in the commission by forming it and giving it a $1,000 budget.
Commissioner Olivia Lazor said time was also a consideration. She said the meeting started at 10 a.m. Friday and Gerbel had to leave at 1:30 p.m.

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