Portage GOP to redo commissioner's appointment

By Mike Sever | Staff Writer Published:

The Portage County Republican Party is calling a "do over" of its February election of Sabrina Christian-Bennett as county commissioner.

Party chairperson Janet Esposito has called a special meeting of the central committee for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Ravenna High School in reaction to news that its election process didn't pass muster with a couple of Ohio Attorney General's opinions.

Esposito sent a letter to the central committee last week, saying "the purpose of this meeting is to re-appoint our candidate to the vacancy for Portage County Commissioner." She said all seven of the candidates who sought the appointment in February will be invited.

Esposito said the party was "repeating the appointment" because of "partisan questions about the process."

Rumblings started when Democrats compared the method of their election in January to fill a county coroner vacancy and the Republican's election in February when the party's executive committee chose Christian-Bennett to fill the last year left on the term vacated by Tommie Jo Marsilio.

When Democrats elected Dr. Dean DePerro to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Dr. Roger Marcial, they signed their ballots and the votes were tallied as they were counted.

But the Republicans' election was done by secret ballot and the tally of votes was not announced -- in keeping with the party's past practice, Esposito said.

Asked if she believed the party could just hold another election, Esposito said "I wouldn't do that without very good legal advice." A call to the Ohio Republican Party seeking comment was not returned.

While the situation could have gone uncorrected, it also could have left decisions by the board of commissioners open to challenge in court. For example, a vendor unhappy with not getting a contract could have filed a lawsuit claiming the board's award was illegal because of how Christian-Bennett was elected.

A secret ballot is not permitted when a local party is acting to fill a vacant elective office, according to attorney general opinions.

In 1980, the AG's office ruled that a county central committee of a political party is a public body and its members are public officials under the Ohio Open Meeting Act. The opinion also said that final voting must be held in a public vote, but did not forbid a secret ballot.

Opinion 2011-038 pulled the plug on secret ballots when central committees are filling vacancies for publicly elected offices. But it did not spell out how to conduct a vote.

When public bodies vote by secret ballot, wrote Attorney General Mike DeWine, "members of the public are prevented from knowing a critical part of a public body's decision-making process. Voting by secret ballot is inimical to R.C. 121.22's (Ohio's Open Meeting Act) goals of enabling the public to know the actions of its appointed and elected representatives."

Esposito said she checked with the state GOP and the party's attorneys about the election process used in February and what will be done Wednesday.

Some Democrats have said the issue should be decided in court or by the two seated county commissioners. That solution might be a problem since commissioners Kathleen Chandler and Maureen Frederick are both Democrats. And no one has stepped up to file a lawsuit challenging the Republican action in court.

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1125 or msever@recordpub.com

Facebook: Mike Sever, Record-Courier

Twitter: @MikeSever_RC

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Related stories:

http://www.recordpub.com/news%20local/2014/07/27/portage-gop-vote-process-questioned

http://www.recordpub.com/news%20local/2014/02/12/portage-gop-picks-christian-bennett-as-new-commissioner

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