By Lance Mihm
Three hours of discussions in both open and executive session turned up only a series of deadlocked votes in the Mercer County Board of Elections attempt to hire a new director at its meeting Monday.
Paperwork on the stalemate is being sent for review and/or action to Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell by the Republicans on the board over the objections of board Democrats.
The director's position has been open since June when Toni Slusser announced she was resigning from her post to begin a new position with Blackwell's staff. She is now the northwest field representative for the secretary of state's office.
Republican board members Owen Hall and Del Kramer had authority to hire a successor since Slusser was a Republican. The board is made of two Republicans and two Democrats.
The two Republicans nominated Denise Fullenkamp, a clerk at the election board office who is a registered Democrat. To complicate matters, Fullenkamp is the daughter of Democrat Diana Grile, the current interim director who served as deputy director under Slusser. Fullenkamp also submitted a letter to the board at the meeting announcing her intentions to switch to the Republican party in the May primary.
In each of the five votes Monday, Democrats Mark Uhlenhake and board president Betty Cook voted no on Fullenkamp as replacement for Slusser.
Uhlenhake said the nomination of Fullenkamp was an attempt to run Grile out of the office. Uhlenhake said according to Ohio law it is illegal for the Republican half of the board to nominate a Demo-crat for the position. He said he felt even if it was possible, Grile was more qualified for the job. Grile and Fullenkamp were two of 14 applicants for the position.
"I think there is motivation here," Uhlenhake said. "It is a personal vendetta issue. I believe it is a personal issue by a former worker here who now works with the secretary of state's office"
While Uhlenhake did not name the former employee he felt had a personal issue with Grile, an official at the secretary of state's office said today Slusser was believed to be the only former Mercer County Board of Elections worker now working at the secretary of state's office.
When asked about the situation, Slusser responded.
"I'm not sure what he thinks I have to gain," Slusser said. "My only feeling is that the most qualified candidate should get the job. I don't know why he (Uhlenhake) thinks I want Denise in or Diana out. I did not hire either of these candidates. Actually, Diana played a bigger role in her (Fullenkamp) being hired here than I did. I'm interested in a specific reason why he would think that."
There also is an apparent conflict in the Ohio Revised Code and the Election Official Manual for Ohio County Boards. The board manual is presented to election board members in training sessions by the secretary of state's office.
In a section of the Ohio Revised Code, it says "the director shall first be selected by the votes of at least three members. If, after five ballots, no person is agreed upon as director, the names of all persons voted for on the fifth ballot, together with the names of the board members who nominated them, shall be certified to the secretary of state, who shall designate therefrom one of such persons to serve as director, unless the secretary of state has reason to believe that no person nominated is qualified."
However, according to the election official manual, it is stated that a two-two tie is a failed motion and replacing a chairperson or director with someone affiliated with a different political party cannot be submitted to the secretary of state's office.
James Lee, a media relations spokesman at the secretary of state's office, said he had not had an opportunity to review minutes from the meeting and could not comment on the selection process for the new director.
"It should not be an issue of controversy," Lee said. "They should try to get along and make a decision."
Uhlenhake said a person cannot officially switch political parties until the next primary election, which Lee confirmed. That would keep Fullenkamp officially a Democrat until May. Kramer said the switch of the parties was trivial.
"Denise (Fullenkamp) previously was a Republican," Kramer said. "She switched parties to take the clerk's job. Now she is simply switching back."
Uhlenhake said he felt the process was bordering ethical conflicts and created a potential conflict between a mother and daughter because of a personal vendetta.