By Ed Runyan
Many people don’t know what the Democratic central committees in Mahoning and Trumbull counties do, but decisions they make by secret ballot can shape local government.
Every few years, the central committee — whose members are selected by voters in their party every four years at the polls — are asked to select someone to fill the unexpired term of a public office, such as county auditor.
But unlike the decisions of other elected officials, the voting done by the central committees in the two counties is done by secret balloting.
Voting is controlled enough to ensure accurate results, insiders say, but each voter’s choice is known only to each voter. He or she doesn’t have to announce his or her choice to the rest of the membership or attach his or her name to the ballot.
Trumbull and Mahoning counties are among a minority of counties in Ohio — about 12 to 24 out of 88 in Ohio — that use secret balloting, according to Chris Redfern, Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman.
Redfern said the state Democratic party and each county party are expected to follow the bylaws of the Democratic National Committee — and its bylaws say all party voting should be public.
As state chairman, he works with the county chairmen to encourage them to change the bylaws so that they conform to the national party, Redfern said.
The use of secret ballots goes for both the Democratic and Republican committees, but the Republicans haven’t had an opportunity to choose many officials in recent years because the party gets to replace a deceased or resigning public official only from its own party.
In Trumbull County, the Democratic Central Committee chose Adrian Biviano over Dan Sferra in 2005 to fill the unexpired auditor term of David Hines, who retired.
In 2008, it chose Sam Lamancusa for treasurer to replace Christ Michelakis, who retired. No one else ran against Lamancusa.
In 2011, it chose Randy Smith over Gary Taneri to replace David DeChristofaro, who resigned with 17 months left in his term as county engineer.
Dave Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, said he doesn’t believe there is a need for public balloting when the party makes endorsements, but he would like to see public voting when the party fills a vacancy for a public official.
“The central committee chooses to keep it,” Betras said of secret voting, for two reasons.
“There used to be retribution” from party leaders that would come into play when a central committee member didn’t vote the way leadership wanted, Betras said.
And, central committee members have said they don’t like having their vote known publicly when having to chose between two people, and the voter is friends with both.
“It’s entrenched, and they do not want it changed,” Betras said.
Kathi Creed, chairman of the Trumbull County Republican Party, said its central committee has had very few opportunities in recent years to pick an interim replacement for an elected position.
Trumbull County Commissioner Paul Heltzel, whose uncle, William J. “Doc” Timmins Jr., was a longtime party chairman, said he “would lean” the way of having open voting, saying, “It’s appropriate for members of the party to know how their representatives voted” since they are elected to their position.
Commissioner Dan Polivka, Trumbull County Democratic Party chairman, referred questions on the matter to Fred Alberini, a former party chairman.
Alberini said changing from public to secret balloting around 1980 allowed him to become a party leader after years of iron-fisted leadership before him.
Alberini, who worked as a Howland High School guidance counselor, said the argument that central committee members should be accountable to the voters who elected them pales in comparison to the benefits of central committee members being able to “vote their conscience” without fear of reprisals.
Heltzel said “friction is a necessary part of the process.”
Alberini said it’s incorrect to compare a county Democratic party to a state Legislature, for example, because the county party doesn’t receive public funds. “It’s entirely an organization that funds itself through donations,” he said.
Atty. David Engler, a former Mahoning County commissioner who has filed several open-records and public meetings lawsuits against Trumbull County government bodies in recent years, said he believes a 2011 opinion from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine supports public balloting by county political parties.
Engler said he believes the opinion also supported his position that the Trumbull County Board of Health should elect its members by public vote.
A March ruling on a temporary restraining order by Judge Andrew Logan of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court changed the way the most recent board of health member was elected by representatives from each of the townships and villages served by the health board. Instead of secret ballot, that voting was public.
Engler said the same opinion that supported public voting by the board of health supports public voting by county political parties.
“I believe it extends to the Democratic or Republican Party for the purpose of filling an elected post,” Engler said. “I don’t think there is a distinction between a board of health member or an auditor’s position.”