By Tim Cox
Republican David Kaiser's name will appear on the November election ballot, but several county officials and a circulator of Kaiser's petition still face a possible criminal investigation into how signatures were obtained for the document.
Kaiser is running against incumbent Democrat Mark Giesige for county auditor.
County elections board members certified Kaiser's petition during an emergency meeting Wednesday, but Democratic members of the board did so reluctantly. The board still could seek a criminal investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission, which investigates and prosecutes violations of Ohio election law.
With just more than 100 signatures of registered Republicans on his petitions, supporters of Kaiser's candidacy said his petition should be approved. Democratic board members were hesitant to approve the petition, citing allegations of coercion in at least one case to obtain a signature for Kaiser's candidacy.
Republican board member Owen Hall accused Democrats of fishing for a broader Republican scandal. "Guys, let's face it, you're on a fishing trip," Hall scolded, adding that "common sense" dictates that at least 50 of the 100 signatures were gathered properly. Fifty signatures are required to run for the countywide office. "I don't see how 50 or more were harassed or forced to sign."
At the center of a political firestorm is the signature of Kent Hinton, the county's solid waste and sanitary sewer manager. Although Hinton has not formally complained, it is believed by some that Hinton felt pressured or coerced by his bosses -- Mercer County Commissioners -- to sign Kaiser's petition. Hinton apparently did not want to sign the paper because his son, Jeremy Hinton, works in the county tax map office under Giesige. Kent Hinton's wife, Dawn, who works in the county treasurer's office, also signed Kaiser's petition.
Kent Hinton has declined to speak publicly about the matter. He was involved in meetings with all three commissioners on Tuesday and relations between them appeared to be normal.
Elections board members could have sought to have the Hintons' names stricken from the petition but instead allowed the signatures to stand.
All three commissioners -- who are all Republican -- have denied wrongdoing.
Board members offered mixed reactions to the allegation of coercion. Republican board member Del Kramer called the charge "heresay." Democratic board member Mark Uhlenhake said the charge is serious and criticized county Commissioner Jim Zehringer for dismissing the allegation as "laughable" in Wednesday's Daily Standard.
"I don't find this a laughing matter. I find this a serious matter," Uhlenhake said. "Who knows how those signatures got on there."
Democratic board Chairperson Betty Cook said she did not like the idea of approving the petitions with controversy swirling around the issue.
Kramer said numerous signatures likely are obtained from people who feel uncomfortable, obligated or otherwise pressured to sign election petitions, but it does not mean the circulators of those petitions are criminals, he said.
Prosecuting Attorney Andy Hinders reminded board members of today's deadline to certify election petitions and send them on to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's office. Approval of the petitions does not preclude a criminal investigation, he said.
Hall pushed for a board vote, noting that only one allegation has been raised. But then elections board Deputy Director Lynn Wylds weighed in with a second potential matter to be investigated. Wylds said she was told Wednesday by a female county employee that she felt "intimidated" by Tom Zitter, who was circulating petitions for Kaiser. The unidentified woman did not sign the petition, Wylds said.
When the board appeared to have reached an impasse on whether to certify the votes, Toni Slusser, Blackwell's local representative, intervened. She suggested that board members call each of the 100 people who signed to determine the validity of the signatures and how they were obtained.
Hall scoffed at that idea.
"I'm not going to make any calls," he said. "I think it's wrong."
Democratic board members eventually agreed to vote to certify the petitions with the understanding they still can seek a criminal investigation for up to two years. The board could not take that action Wednesday because the emergency meeting was called specifically to consider certification of petitions.