The state elections board deliberated behind closed doors for 7 1/2 hours yesterday on the fate of Maryland elections chief Linda H. Lamone, but the board's chairman declined to say if the board had decided to fire her.
"It will come in a press statement [Friday]," board Chairman Gilles W. Burger said as the meeting ended.
Other board members filed out, giving a terse "no comment." The board is believed to be waiting to publicly announce its decision until after it has an opportunity to inform Lamone.
Lamone, who declined to comment, was not at the elections board office in Annapolis as the panel met to discuss her fate. Her staff said she was attending a homeland security conference in Washington.
The board, which is controlled by appointees of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had been investigating Lamone's job performance, a move leading Democrats called a politically motivated "witch hunt."
Burger said the board would release a statement at noon today. He said the board received advice from legal counsel during its deliberations.
"There are a number of reasons why I can't tell you what we did tonight," Burger told reporters. "I'm sorry that you had to wait so long today."
The board began meeting behind closed doors at 1:15 p.m. and continued, with only a short break to order pizza, until 8:45.
Burger said the panel was meeting in private "to discuss multiple personnel matters that affect one or more specific individuals" and to obtain legal advice about potential and pending legal action.
Ehrlich has made it known that he wants to replace Lamone, who has been Maryland's elections chief since July 1, 1997.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he saw no valid reason for the push to remove Lamone, whom he described as a "nonpartisan" administrator who had done an "outstanding" job.
Miller, a Democrat, said there has "never been a hint of wrongdoing" by Lamone and the elections board has failed to state a case to justify her removal.
"I think people of good will will find the entire process offensive," Miller said. "It has a certain odor about it that doesn't bode well for nonpartisan politics" at the elections board.
Other Democratic leaders said they were baffled by the Republicans' determination to replace Lamone and predicted that the governor's relations with the legislature could suffer as a result.
"You pick your battles," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the Executive Nominations Committee. "I don't see, as one of my colleagues said, the juice is worth the squeeze on this."
Burger has said the board had an obligation to investigate unspecified complaints it has received relating to the operations of the elections board. He denied that partisan politics spurred the inquiry.
Ehrlich has not commented on the board's recent actions. But many Maryland Republicans are still bitter over the disputed 1994 gubernatorial race between Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a contest that was decided by fewer than 6,000 votes and landed in court amid charges of fraud and misconduct.
Last year, Ehrlich's communications director, Paul Schurick, said few people "grasped the significance" of the control of the election apparatus Republicans gained through Ehrlich's victory.
Mindful of the recount of Florida presidential ballots in 2000 and with the 2006 gubernatorial race expected to be tight, some Republicans said control over voting procedures could be important.
"I would not be one to say `Oh, I think someone would intentionally try to sway it one way or another,' but the little calls do make a big difference," said Republican consultant Carol R. Hirschburg.
The meeting was held in what some observers saw as a narrow interval for the board to act.
If action had been delayed, new Ehrlich appointee Gene M. Raynor, a Democrat and former elections chief, might have been prevented from participating because he had previously called for Lamone's dismissal.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, received a memo in July citing case law to show that a "biased decision maker" could not ordinarily vote in such a circumstance.
An exception would be if the board could otherwise not act.
On Monday, Lamone's lone supporter on the panel, Democrat Richard Menikheim, resigned for health reasons, leaving, for the time being, just four other members, meaning the board could not act without Raynor's vote.
Raynor, a close associate of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer who endorsed Ehrlich for governor, said this week he could fairly judge Lamone's performance.
Board members said before filing into the closed meeting that Maryland law allows them to decide "personnel actions" behind closed doors and that they would not have to reconvene in public to vote.