Election official may be ousted

Some believe state board has called meeting today to consider firing Lamone

Democrats call it a `witch hunt'

Ehrlich wants new chief

panel leans Republican

September 02, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A state elections board controlled by appointees of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to meet behind closed doors today, apparently to consider firing Maryland elections chief Linda H. Lamone.

Democratic legislative leaders said yesterday that it made no sense to oust Lamone two months from Election Day.

"It seems to me that you would want to have all the experienced, first-line people in place and not be making drastic changes," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Ehrlich has made it known that he wants to replace Lamone, and his board appointees recently launched an investigation of her performance. DeGrange and other Democrats have called it a politically motivated "witch hunt" to build a case for firing her.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the governor's attention is focused on the Republican National Convention in New York and he is not involved in the board's business.

"Linda Lamone's future is in the hands of the board, not the governor," DeLeaver said.

Elections Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger did not respond to telephone calls yesterday about the reasons for the special meeting. The board's notice says only that the panel would meet in executive session at 1 p.m. to discuss personnel matters.

But the session's timing suggests that the board, which recently brought in an investigator to review Lamone's job performance, is poised to fire her, observers said.

DeGrange said he sees no other reason for suddenly calling a closed-door session one week before the board's regular meeting.

"They've wanted to go down this path, so I'll be quite surprised if they don't take this action," he said.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he has little doubt the board plans to vote to oust Lamone today.

"I think that's exactly what's going to happen," Jimeno said. "I think that's been their intention ever since the governor took office. They had to structure the membership of the board to do it."

He said changing administrators so close to the elections would be a mistake.

"I just don't understand, with the election two months away, why in the world you would want to take a chance of potentially disrupting the election process," Jimeno said.

Lamone declined to comment yesterday.

The elections administrator had been a gubernatorial appointment until state law was changed in 1998 in an effort to buffer the elections office from politics. The administrator oversees 24 local boards and certifies election results.

A five-member, bipartisan board appointed by the governor oversees the elections office. But the board can dismiss Lamone only if it can document a valid reason, such as malfeasance or poor performance in office - and only then by a vote of four members.

Today's meeting comes at a unique time, as what was meant to be a bipartisan panel is temporarily tilted toward the Republicans.

The lone Democrat on the panel who supported Lamone, Richard Menikheim, resigned Monday for health reasons. That leaves three Republican members and one Democrat, Gene M. Raynor.

Raynor, who endorsed Ehrlich for governor, is a former longtime state elections chief. He has said publicly that Lamone should be replaced.

Some legislators, including state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, have questioned whether Raynor should be disqualified from voting on Lamone because of those statements.

A July 23 memo from the attorney general's office to Frosh quotes legal cases that establish an individual's entitlement to "a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal." It says "a biased decision maker" can deprive an individual of those due process rights.

"Under ordinary circumstances, if a decision can be made without the participation of the official whose statements reflect prejudgment, due process requires the official's disqualification," the memo states.

But that general rule can be skirted if no substitute officer is available and the only way that a board can act on a matter is with the member's participation, the memo says.

That is a situation that exists only for a brief time - until a replacement can be found for Menikheim. Once a replacement is appointed, Raynor could be disqualified from voting and the board could fall short of the four votes required to oust Lamone.

Raynor, a close associate of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said yesterday that he can fairly judge Lamone's performance. He said he has heard criticisms of her but wants to hear from other sources.

"I have not made up my mind," Raynor said. "I would like to hear what the board and investigator has to say."

He said that he was not angling to take over Lamone's job, as some have speculated.

"I have no interest whatsoever in being an elections administrator," said Raynor, 68. "I did that for 41 years. I am not available. I don't mind giving advice once a month or when called. To actually take a job as administrator, I will not do it."

Lamone has received mixed reviews from county elections administrators. When asked about her performance, some complained about last-minute changes they were forced to make during the March primary to adopt a new electronic voting system. But others said headaches were to be expected in launching a new voting system.

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