Election board under scrutiny

First there were the affidavits submitted by two women who alleged wrongdoing by Dominic Leone, a candidate for Struthers Municipal Court judge.

Then there was the Nov. 7 election night vote-count debacle that caused The Vindicator and other media to publicize incorrect totals.

Finally, there’s the legal complaint filed Thursday by Sean McKinney, the loser in the race for Youngstown mayor, alleging “election fraud with many irregularities.”

You don’t have to stretch your imagination to conclude that the credibility of the Mahoning County Board of Elections has suffered a major blow.

What will it take for elections officials and the four members of the board of elections to win back the public’s trust? First and foremost, a public admission that they made a mess of the November general election and that major changes in how they conduct the people’s business already are taking place.

Then, a commitment on the part of board members Mark Munroe and Tracey Winbush, Republicans, and Atty. David Betras and Robert Wasko, Democrats, to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the workforce.

The three questions taxpayers ask most often about the staff are these: How did they get their jobs? What are their qualifications? What are they getting paid?

Indeed, Munroe, board chairman, and his colleagues may not have a choice in implementing changes because the ineptitude of the operation has grabbed the attention of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Husted recently gave up his bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018 and will, instead, run for lieutenant governor on the ticket with gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine, currently Ohio’s attorney general.

The secretary of state, as Ohio’s chief elections officer, not only appoints the members of the county boards of elections, but also has ultimate responsibility for the operations of the offices and the conduct of local and statewide elections.

In other words, the buck stops on Husted’s desk, which is why he has reacted so quickly – and appropriately – to what has gone on in Mahoning County.

Last week, he asked county Sheriff Jerry Greene to conduct an investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing by Leone while a candidate for Struthers judge.

Democrat Leone, the city’s law director, defeated Republican Damian P. DeGenova in the race.

The sheriff has asked the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to take over the probe of the allegations because of potential conflicts of interest.

Greene said his office works frequently with Leone in his capacity as law director and, therefore, wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety with regard to the investigation.

In the midst of the campaign, a pair of ex-girlfriends gave sworn statements to the board of elections that Leone had accepted improper campaign contributions and had smoked marijuana.

The candidate denied the allegations and the director of the board of elections, Joyce Kale-Pesta, said the county prosecutor’s office found no basis for filing charges against the candidate.

Long-time judge James Lanzo, who was prevented from seeking another term because of age, is vacating his Struthers Municipal Court seat.

During the election, after the allegations against Leone became public, this writer urged Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, to call for a full-blown hearing by the board of elections at which all parties would have had to testify under oath.

Betras said there wasn’t enough time for such a hearing and also insisted the claims made by the two women were false.

Now, the legitimacy of the race is being challenged.

Likewise, the hotly contested battle for Youngstown mayor, won by Democrat Jamael Tito Brown by a mere 201 votes over independent challenger McKinney.

McKinney, former commissioner of buildings and grounds for the city, claims in a complaint filed in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that the citizens of Youngstown did not get a “clean and fair election” on Nov.7.

Atty. Donald C. Brey of the Columbus law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister is representing McKinney.

Defendants in the case, which is assigned to Judge John M. Durkin, are the board of elections and Mayor-elect Brown, who formerly served on city council and Youngstown Board of Education.

Munroe, elections board chairman, called McKinney’s allegations of election fraud “absurd.”

“There are extensive checks to ensure that every election is conducted fairly and that the results reflect the will of the voters.”

That may well be, but given that the board of elections released inaccurate vote tallies election night for all the races and issues in Mahoning County, a cloud of suspicion continues to exist.

Munroe and his colleagues explained that the inaccuracy was the result of more than 6,000 early-vote ballots being counted twice, thereby skewing the final, but unofficial, results.

The tallying mistake by Thomas McCabe, deputy director of the board of elections, was caught election night before the staff went home, but The Vindicator was not notified.

As a result, the wrong vote totals were published in the next day’s newspaper in numerous stories and a full page listing of all the races and issues.

Munroe and his colleagues on the board, along with Kale-Pesta, director of the board of elections, insist the wrong count did not change the outcome of the races.

Indeed, they rallied around McCabe, a Republican. Kale-Pesta is a Democrat.

While such kumbaya moments are heart-warming, the reality is that boards of elections are designed to operate on the basis of political checks-and-balances.

Is there too much of a politically incestuous relationship among members of the board and the staff that is enabling incompetence to flourish in Mahoning County?

It’s a question Secretary of State Husted must answer – by conducting an independent review of what took place election night.

As McKinney, the loser in the Youngstown mayoral race, put it: “Our most sacred right as citizens is the right to vote. Citizens in the city of Youngstown deserve the right to know that their vote counted and that it was counted correctly.”

To be sure, McKinney wouldn’t be sitting on that high horse had he won the race by 201 votes, but that’s politics.

What isn’t politics is the expectation of the public that elections will be conducted efficiently.

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