COLUMBUS — Two Democratic members of the Putnam County Board of Elections in danger of losing their jobs argued Friday that they never intended to mislead the public about what was going on in their meetings.
Ann Dillinger and Martin Kuhlman urged a hearing officer not to agree with Secretary of State Jon Husted's inclination to fire the pair after a judge awarded $5,000 in statutory damages and $31,400 in attorney fees to a Fort Jennings resident, Jeremy Price, who sued over violations of Ohio's public meetings and open records laws.
Hearing officer Jon Allison is expected to issue his recommendation in the case in about two weeks.
"These are technical errors that lawsuits look for," Dillinger said. "Are they so bad that I should be dismissed?"
Both she and Kuhlman argued that they are not lawyers and thought they were complying with the law to properly give notice to the public about meetings, what would be discussed at those meetings, and what was being discussed when they went behind closed doors into executive session. Kuhlman noted that the first violation found occurred at the first meeting he attended.
A judge found the violations that occurred between March 2008 and January 2009 to be "egregious, repeated and deprived the public of information that they were required to provide."
"That doesn't sound like, 'Whoops, no big deal.," said Principal Assistant Attorney General Richard Coglianese. "Ignorance of the law is never an excuse."
The Republican members during that period, Lyle McKanna and Marie Heitmeyer, are no longer members. Husted has indicated they cannot be reappointed to the board in the future.
The dispute is just the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the board of elections, including what then-Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner characterized as an Election Day "meltdown" of voting machines during a 2008 special congressional election. Two days later she placed the board on watch by her office. That has since been lifted.
Kuhlman noted that the board was still under the secretary of state's watch in 2008, and a representative of her office was present during the meetings. No red flags were raised, he said.