Heads must roll at board of elections

By Bertram de Souza

Having a clerk take the fall for what is by any measure a major foul-up at the Mahoning County Board of Elections is not only unfair but is unacceptable.

To be sure, Danielle O’Neill must be held to account for not sending to the county commissioners the ballot language for the half-percent sales tax renewal that was prepared by the Ohio secretary of state’s office. But O’Neill, who has worked for the board of elections for 20 years, isn’t the only one at fault.

The director of the elections board, Thomas McCabe, who is paid $63,000-plus, and the deputy director, Joyce Kale-Pesta, who earns $57,000-plus, must also answer for the fact that the ballot language is flawed. Never mind what the secretary of state’s office says, voters on Nov. 3 will have no indication that this not a new tax. Indeed, if they take the time to read the issue in its entirety, they will see the word additional — as in “The proceeds of the sales and use tax levied herein shall provide additional revenue for the county’s general fund ...”

Ultimate responsibility

McCabe and Kale-Pesta are ultimately responsible for what appears on an election ballot. That is one of their main functions as the top elections officials in the county.

Thus, if O’Neill, who was placed on paid administrative leave last week pending an investigation, is to be reprimanded by the four-member board of elections when it meets Monday morning, the director and deputy director also must face sanctions. After all, other than elections, McCabe and Kale-Pesta, like all other elections employees throughout the state, have it relatively easy. The salaries they receive are not a reflection of the amount of work they do. Rather, they are paid for the responsibilities they bear.

Indeed, while the board of elections, made up of two Democrats, Atty. Michael Morley, former Democratic Party chairman, and Robert Wasko, and two Republicans, Clarence Smith, party chairman, and Mark Munroe, are contemplating a response to what occurred. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner owes it to the taxpayers to determine what blame should be borne by the board.

After all, these four individuals are paid and receive health insurance coverage for performing part-time duties.

Finally, there’s the role played by county commissioners Anthony Traficanti, David Ludt and John McNally, Administrator George Tablack and Prosecutor Paul Gains.

The placement of the sales-tax issue on the Nov. 3 ballot began with the prosecutor’s office preparing a resolution that was to be adopted by the county commissioners. The headline of the resolution reads as follows: “Continuation of an existing non-emergency sales and use tax for a continuing period of time.” The caption reads, “A resolution directing the Mahoning County Board of Elections to submit to the electors of Mahoning County, Ohio, at the election to be held on November 3, 2009, the continuation of an existing county sales and use tax in the amount of one-half of one percent for a continuing period of time.”

The body of the resolution contains six sections, including Section 3 with the words “provide additional revenue ...”

After it was adopted by Traficanti et al, the resolution was sent to the board of elections. It was then forwarded to the secretary of state’s office for its official stamp of approval. The state prepared the ballot language based on what it had received and what was in the body of the resolution and sent it back to the elections board.

At that point, things fell apart. O’Neill did not submit what the secretary of state had prepared to the commissioners, even though she had done so with other entities with issues on the ballot.

Big question

And here’s the million-dollar question: Why wasn’t the language that was used two years ago when the other half-percent sales tax was renewed for a continuing period adopted this time?

If the sales tax issue passes on Nov. 3, the participants in this foul-up can get away with some administrative punishment.

But if it is defeated, individuals will have to lose their jobs, and the secretary of state would be justified in calling for the resignation of the board of elections.

After all, we are talking about $14 million in a county that’s struggling.

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