Four BOE employees fight for jobs at appeals hearingWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Four employees of the Lucas County Board of Elections (BOE) gave testimony in defense of their jobs May 15 at a hearing that spanned eight hours with some testimony lasting more than an hour.
A transcript of the hearing will be provided to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who will make a final decision on whether they will be removed or retained.
Citing a culture of “dysfunction,” a transparency committee appointed by Husted recommended May 9 that five BOE employees be fired. Husted informed each by letter May 12 that he would be starting the removal process, but gave them the right to appeal their termination at the hearing.
Ron Rothenbuhler, the Democratic chairman of the BOE; two Republican board members, Jon Stainbrook and Tony DeGidio; and BOE director Gina Kaczala, a Republican, gave testimony May 15 in that order. Only Kaczala was represented by an attorney.
Deputy Director Dan DeAngelis, a Democrat, resigned from his position May 14, effective June 2. A fourth board member, John Irish, was recommended to be retained.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Director of Elections Matt Damschroder served as the hearing officer. He gave each employee 15 minutes for opening remarks. The transparency committee followed with testimony gathered over the course of several meetings with the employees. Rebuttals were then allowed.
The transparency committee consisted of Scott Borgemenke, Jennifer Brunner and James Ruvolo.
“This has been a difficult process,” said Borgemenke in his opening remarks. “The reason we are here today is because nothing was done (for the public to see). All the people who asked for help didn’t like the solution to the problem. … These are not bad people.”
Borgemenke said the elections board has a culture of “passing the buck.”
“It’s time to accept the truth: It’s not going to get fixed with these people. We need to close the book,” he said.
Borgemenke gave a rundown of the many problems plaguing the BOE, from verbal and physical fights to missing campaign finance reports to a lack of a system to pay election workers. He said overall it was an “extremely hostile work place.”
The environment was so bad that one person asked for immunity to speak to the transparency committee, Borgemenke said.
On the positive side, he said the staff did “step up” and make some difficult decisions, although he did not elaborate.
“I’m not here to plead for my job but to state my case,” Rothenbuhler said in his opening statement. “I said I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to work here. … I’m accused of being too nice, passive. I’ve done my best. … and I’ve tried to treat people the way they deserve to be treated. … I want to be part of the solution.”
Borgemenke started by saying Rothenbuhler was a man of integrity and that he should be proud of the work he has done for the county. But he said the problems besetting the board are too great to save him his job and accused him of negligence.
Borgemenke said there had been no regular board meeting since October and that Rothenbuhler regularly “played games” with Stainbrook.
Borgemenke put the blame on Rothenbuhler for the “screaming” that occurred on election night May 6 with one board member asleep in his car. Borgemenke was referring to DeGidio, who has health issues.
“Mr. Rothenbuhler is just too busy or asleep at the wheel for this board to operate,” Borgemenke said.
“I think Ron wanted to do the right things,” Ruvolo said. “I think the culture beat him down. …It’s a great failure.”
“I did everything I could to promote good will and not be a dictator,” Rothenbuhler said in his rebuttal. “We’ve had a history here (with) the turnover of board members. If anyone thinks it’s easy, it certainly wasn’t.”
Stainbrook took the seat after Rothenbuhler. Several board members and BOE employs have pointed at Stainbrook for not getting along with other board members and for misbehavior election night, during which when he accused Kaczala of lying to the media about missing data cards.
“The secretaries are clearing deck to get this ship righted,” Brunner said. “Mr. Stainbrook was a hindrance rather than a help.”
Ruvolo said it was no secret that he and Stainbrook did not get along. He said he believes Stainbrook has a “personal agenda to retain his power.”
Borgemenke said he was “frustrated” with Stainbrook.
“I don’t know how to sift through the truth,” he said. “We’ve got menacing reports, intrusions, late night intrusions. The whole thing is bad. It’s been frustrating me the whole time. I don’t think (these) people tell the truth the whole time.”
In his defense, Stainbrook called for an end to “back room deals,” of which he said there is a history at the BOE.
“Ron and I both tried to fix the culture,” he said, but acknowledged they were not able to change it.
“I did want to change the environment at the board,” he told the roomful of two dozen people. “I was not the aggressor. The video is proof of that. If a clean sweep is what is needed … then I would like to be a part of that solution.”
Stainbrook said the board had policies in place, that he did not behave in a hostile manner and blamed the Democratic party for the campaign finance issues.
Borgemenke seemed to become frustrated with Stainbrook’s responses and said the transparency committee was under a “conundrum.”
“I worked with this group a long time. … Everybody’s got their story. That’s why everybody’s got to go,” Borgemenke said.
In rebuttal, Stainbrook said, “I really did care about the process and tired to make it a better board of elections.”
“Mr. Stainbrook. Did you mostly yell at each other?” Borgemenke replied.
“No, we had good talks,” Stainbrook responded.
DeGidio testified for an hour and at one point became emotional as he described having to testify “against your friends.” He said he believed the evidence will show not all the board members need to be fired.
Borgemenke acknowledged having a relationship with DeGidio but said he “had a job to do.” He pressed DeGidio to resign on at least two occasions, but DeGidio stood firm. He said he would be “happy” to resign if Stainbrook was terminated or if the board provided “cogent” evidence. He accused Stainbrook of criminal behavior, referring to a criminal investigation into Stainbrook that is currently being conducted over claims he instructed a BOE employee to slow down elections work. Stainbrook denies the claim.
The transparency committee called DeGidio’s mental competency into question, referred to his health problems and asked if he was on any “mind altering” drugs or pain medication when he wrote a letter that was entered in as evidence.
DeGidio said the secretary of state’s office did nothing to help the board of elections when it asked for help. He also came out in Kaczala’s defense, saying “I don’t know what she could have done differently.”
Kaczala was hired at the BOE on Dec. 13, 2011. She became director March 4 after the board voted to oust director Meghan Gallagher.
In her defense, Kaczala’s attorney, Paul Belazis, said the primary election was 60 days away, the board was in a state of emergency, the atmosphere was toxic and there was bitterness and bipartisanship.
“That is the environment in which Gina Kaczala became director,” Belazis said.
Kaczala countered that atmosphere with an environment of respect and teamwork, and ironed out all the difficulties before the election, Belazis said.
“She worked with every department on election readiness – she gained their respect,” he said.
Borgemenke agreed Kaczala took the helm amid a rough environment. When she was sworn in that morning, someone was being fired later that afternoon, he said.
However, Brunner expressed doubt that Kaczala was ready to assume that level of responsibility.
“At this juncture, I’m not so sure it’s in the best interest of the board to keep her in (this position),” she said.
The transparency committee wanted to know at what point the relationship between Gallagher and Kaczala deteriorated. Kaczala said there was one pivotal conversation in which she felt a change.
The committee also asked her to characterize the relationship between herself and Stainbrook on election night.
“I don’t honestly know when it started to get to a point that Mr. Stainbrook disliked me,” she said. “If you try to bully me, I just rise above it and do my job. … I have learned in working with Mr. Stainbrook I usually shut down and get quiet and remove myself from the situation.”
“It’s almost an impossible job, but we need new members going forward,” Ruvolo said.
“I have worked with Ms. Kaczala for several years,” Borgemenke said. “(It’s) hard to tell the difference between you and DeAngelis.”
In remarks made before the first testimony, Kaczala’s attorney, Belazis, said he was given inadequate time to prepare for Kaczala’s defense. DeGidio agreed the council did not allow enough time to prepare a defense nor did it provide transcripts of the transparency committee meetings.
Damschroder said he would send their objections to Husted.
“As was stated in the letter, this is an opportunity for you to be heard,” Damschroder said. “I will take your objections on record and put in in a report to the directors, for the secretaries to determine when making his decision. The evidence will be given the weight it deserves.”
In his letters to the employees, Husted said, “In nearly every other county in the state, board members and staff are able to put aside their differences to meet their responsibilities to voters. In Lucas County, the petty infighting, personality conflicts, and sloppy administration have gone on long enough. I simply cannot jeopardize the integrity of future elections in Lucas County.”