Decision due today on fate of elections chief

After state board meeting, Lamone faces possible firing

September 03, 2004|By Greg Garland and Andrew A. Green | Greg Garland and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

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" when questioned by reporters awaiting a decision on whether Lamone had been dismissed.

The board, which is controlled by appointees of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had been investigating Lamone's job performance

Burger said he will release a statement about the outcome of the meeting at noon today.

Ehrlich has made it known that he wants to replace Lamone, and his board appointees recently launched an investigation of her performance, a move that leading Democrats called a politically motivated "witch hunt."

The board began meeting behind closed doors at 1:15 p.m. and continued, with a short break to order pizza, until 8:45 p.m.

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.

Democrats said they were stymied 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."

Ehrlich has not commented on the board's recent actions. But many Maryland Republicans remain bitter over the disputed 1994 gubernatorial race between Parris N. Glendening and Ellen Sauerbrey, a contest that was decided by fewer than 6,000 votes and ended up 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 that 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, 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 came in what some observers saw as a narrow window of opportunity for the board to act.

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 5-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.

Ehrlich has reshaped the board since taking office and, despite a legally mandated 3-2 split between Republicans and Democrats, four members have expressed a willingness to replace Lamone.

But new Ehrlich appointee Gene M. Raynor, a Democrat and former elections chief, said before taking office that he thought Lamone should be replaced, putting the legality of his vote in question.

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 usually 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, only four other members. That means 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 that he could fairly judge Lamone's performance. He said he has heard criticisms of her but wants to hear from other sources.

Lamone has become a controversial figure in recent months because of her implementation of an electronic voting system in the state. Critics have said it is subject to errors or tampering and have demanded that the state create paper records of the votes.

Lamone, saying she is confident in the integrity of the $55 million system, has spurned the call for paper records, a decision Ehrlich has backed.

County elections administrators have given Lamone mixed reviews for her implementation of the new system.

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