Chief takes rocky road to board of elections

Official has drawn fire in same job in Prince George's

July 18, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The controversial administrator of Prince George's County's elections board has been hired for the same, though lower paying, job in smaller Howard County.

Robert J. Antonetti Sr., 64, is to begin his job Aug. 14. His departure ends nearly two years of acrimony in Prince George's. As part of a campaign by Prince George's officials to force him out of office, he said, the General Assembly passed a bill in 1999 removing his job from the Prince George's merit system. Antonetti said that's why he is leaving for a lower paying job in Howard - to avoid political pressures on his sensitive job and regain the security of a civil service position.

"I just don't like the politics. It belongs on the board [which is politically appointed], but when you get down to the day-to-day operations, politics should be left out," he said, blaming state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. for his departure. Miller, of Prince George's County, declined to comment yesterday.

Howard County's elections board chairman, the Rev. Roland L. Howard, said the board chose Antonetti on Friday from among five finalists. Eighteen people had applied for the job.

Antonetti's critics included several Prince George's politicians, including Republicans and Democrats who have over the years accused him of making errors and of being an arrogant manager.

The most recent controversy erupted in 1998. The names of two Republican candidates were left off primary election ballots in Prince George's County, and some sample ballots contained misspelled words, the wrong election date and the name of a board member who had died a year earlier. In 1995, Antonetti faced criticism for hiring his wife and three children for temporary election board jobs worth a total of $6,700 and for not disclosing the hirings.

He was reprimanded for the hirings in 1997 by the State Ethics Commission, but the decision was overturned last year by a Prince George's County circuit judge. The case is pending before at the state Court of Special Appeals.

"It was an error just like any other human error," Antonetti said yesterday about the ballot gaffes. He noted that the elections board members had reviewed the ballots and added that there were 96 ballots in that election. The temporary hiring of relatives, he said, "goes on all over the state. What's past is past."

State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard-MontgomeryCounty Republican and chairman of Howard's state Senate delegation, said that's the attitude he is taking, too. "I'm going to go on good faith that this a new beginning," McCabe said, adding that he has been frustrated by Howard County's inability to fill the vacant post. "I'll put a little trust in the election board."

Howard County Executive James N. Robey said yesterday that he doesn't know Antonetti and isn't familiar with his background.

Prince George's is one of four counties in Maryland - including Montgomery, Calvert and Allegany - where the elections board jobs are in the local county merit systems. Elsewhere in Maryland, the state controls the jobs, though the local governments pay for them. That will enable Antonetti to take a pension from his home county and begin a job in neighboring Howard. He said he will commute to Ellicott City from his home in Upper Marlboro. The Howard job will pay about $57,000, far below the $84,000 Antonetti is making in Prince George's.

Howard said he's not worried about mistakes Antonetti made during his 30-year career in Prince George's.

"I'm satisfied. I would have no qualms [about Antonetti]," Howard said. He characterized Antonetti's errors as human and no worse than those made by other election officials through the years. As for Antonetti hiring his family, Howard said other election administrators, including Howard's, have done the same on occasion. The veteran administrator's ability to train Howard County's board workers is what is most valuable. "We need that kind of experience," Howard said about Antonetti.

Howard County's top board job has been vacant for a full year, since former long-term administrator Barbara Feaga retired. The county had a hard time attracting applicants for the job because the salary was so low - $29,000. The state and county kicked in more money for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Howard County has 140,000 registered voters, compared with 380,000 in Prince George's.

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