By Bertram de Souza
Make no mistake about it. Had the renewal of the half-percent sales tax in Mahoning County won voter approval Tuesday, the employees of the board of elections office would be strutting around like peacocks performing a mating dance. From board members Clarence Smith, Mark Munroe, Michael Morley and Robert Wasko, to Director Thomas McCabe, to Deputy Director Joyce Kale Pesta, to all the political appointees, the reaction to the passage of the sales tax issue would have been immediate and loud: We’ve been vindicated.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the board was harshly criticized by the county commissioners, the county prosecutor and others, and was spanked in this space for failing to follow established procedure in the handling of the ballot issue.
Board officials insisted that failure to send commissioners Anthony Traficanti, David Ludt and John McNally a copy of the proposed language prepared by the secretary of state’s office was not intentional. They also vehemently denied there was any grand conspiracy designed to bring about the defeat of the renewal. And, they dismissed an investigation by the sheriff’s department as ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the clerk who was responsible for the foul-up was given a five-day suspension without pay. And a day after the column in this space headlined “Heads must roll at the board of elections” was published, the four-member board suspended McCabe for three days without pay.
Even so, the reaction seemed to be that the controversy over the handling of the ballot issue was much gum-flapping about nothing.
But on Tuesday, the half-percent sales tax renewal went down in flames. The tally: 39,920 against; 30,338 for.
Who’s to blame?
It depends on who you ask. Employees of the elections board say they simply adopted the wording of a resolution passed by the county commissioners. They also contend it was the secretary of state’s office that prepared the actual language that appeared on the ballot,
But Commissioner Traficanti argues that he and his colleagues told the elections board to use the same ballot language that was used in 2007 when the other half=percent sales tax was renewed for a permanent period, rather than five years.
Why wasn’t that language used, seeing as how the commissioners also wanted the tax on Tuesday’s ballot to be for a continuing period?
Why wasn’t the word “renewal” used in the caption, the way it was two years ago, according to Traficanti?
And, why was it necessary to include the word “additional” in the text of the issue?
These questions demand answers.
Given the defeat Tuesday, the controversy has been raised to a whole new level that justifies the involvement of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
Brunner, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S, Senate next year, should determine whether the four-member board of elections, Republicans Smith and Munroe and Democrats Morley and Wasko, bear ultimate responsibility. And if they do, should they be fired?
And, Ohio’s chief elections officer should evaluate the effectiveness of the director and deputy director.
What happened this past election and the results on Tuesday weren’t just a clerical error or miscommunication.
The result of the defeat of Issue 4 could wind up being a $14 million annual shortfall in county government’s operating budget. Commissioners intend to put it back on the ballot in May, but there’s no guarantee it will be approved.
Reason for being
As was pointed out in this space on Oct. 25, elections are the reason for boards of elections existing. Indeed, they are busy twice a year during election time and for the rest of the time they coast.
Secretary of State Brunner should launch a formal investigation. And she should determine whether a take over of the board’s operation by her office is justified until she evaluates the staff.
Indeed, if she is not convinced that what occurred with the sales tax issue rises to the level of her getting involved, she certainly would want to know why the FBI has been talking to some board of elections employees.