Elections panel pushed into spotlight Questions raised on board's response in campaign disputes

'I don't understand'

The 3 members are volunteers appointed by the city council

September 04, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In an election guaranteed to put a new mayor in office and five new alderman on the Annapolis city council, the political spotlight has focused on the three-member City Elections Board that is appointed to oversee the races.

When three aldermanic candidates failed to meet residency requirements, the board said the voters should decide. When questions about an alderman's residency surfaced, the board said it had no authority to investigate. It said the same when three mayoral candidates failed to disclose a donation of office space on their campaign finance reports.

The decisions have infuriated political observers, who say the board won't make hard decisions. They say it's a board with no bite, that the members dropped the ball, that they are too wishy-washy, wafflers.

"The election board hasn't made a hard decision in the last eight years," said Alderman Wayne C. Turner, a Republican who represents Ward 6.

"What do we have an elections board for if they can't do anything?" Democratic Alderman Louise Hammond of Ward 1 asked after the board failed to disqualify the three aldermanic candidates.

Board Chairman Richard E. Israel shrugged and called for reform.

"I don't understand why we're the focus of attention," said Israel, who stands by the board's recent actions. "As far as I'm concerned, our objective is to take the law the city council has given us and administer it.

"Frankly, we can't give ourselves more power than we have," Israel said. "Politics is an adversarial process. Whatever the board chooses to do, there's always going to be criticism. Perhaps it's not the board people should be criticizing, but the laws given to us."

The board members, Democrats Israel and Gertrude McGowan and Republican Allen J. Furth, are appointed by the city council, based on recommendations by party central committees.

In the most recent cases:

The board allowed three aldermanic candidates who failed to properly register to vote on time, a violation of the city code, to remain in the race last month, saying it had no authority to disqualify them. A Ward 1 resident sued the elections board and won. The candidates dropped out.

Mayoral candidates Dennis M. Callahan, M. Theresa DeGraff and Dean L. Johnson failed to properly disclose in their July 29 campaign finance reports office space that had been donated to their campaigns. The board, after consulting with city lawyers, said office space and rent did not have to be disclosed because it was not "a tangible thing of value."

In the same reports, Callahan failed to disclose a recent poll conducted by a supporter that was favorable to his campaign. The board ruled that Callahan did not have to disclose it because the supporter conducted and paid for the poll independently of the campaign.

The board has not investigated questions raised in April about whether Ward 5 Alderman Carl O. Snowden lives in his ward, a requirement of the City Charter. Board members said they didn't have the authority to investigate.

The board has "a tendency to err on the side of caution," said Paul G. Goetzke, the city attorney.

"The city election board has consistently interpreted its powers narrowly," Goetzke said. "This office advised the election board that we believe the code gave them powers to disqualify the three candidates for alderman, but as the judge in court said, 'They passed the buck.' "

In defense, supporters say the board has made a number of hard decisions that have changed the face of politics in Annapolis.

For example, the board championed legislation last year that helped reform campaign finance laws to include limits on in-kind contributions to candidates, and members promised to tighten the law even more after the office space controversy.

On other issues, the board told aldermanic candidate George O. Kelley, a Democrat running in Ward 5, that the city code required him to resign as a city police officer because of potential conflicts of interest.

The state attorney general's office agreed.

The county state's attorney's office agreed with the board's decision that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the resident poll for Callahan was not conducted independently.

In another ruling, the board barred aldermanic candidate Michael T. Brown from running as an independent in Ward 6 because he had failed to gather 100 signatures on a petition required for his candidacy.

Decisions such as those have led some to think twice about blaming the board and to call for reform of the laws under which it operates, but they haven't decided what that means.

"It's easy for me to criticize them when they do something I don't like," Hammond said. "But, we have to remember, this is a group of volunteers who are giving us their time. In fact, I think we need to dot a few I's and cross a few T's in the laws to improve the election process."

But the amount of power the board is granted should be treated carefully, some political experts said. If not, it could lead to abuse.

"Boards are typically political parties, and you do not want them to enforce power for partisan purposes," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a political watchdog group. "So in some ways, it's good if they err on the side of caution.

"On the other hand, we have to have laws that need to be enforced or the whole election process becomes a joke."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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