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Tensions arise over election-board bill

February 09, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

State lawmakers from Washington County agreed Wednesday to submit a bill changing the makeup of the county's election board, but only after sharp debate and allegations of poor protocol and bullying.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, already had filed a bill to turn election board alternates into full members, echoing a change taking effect in three Eastern Shore counties this year.

Also, the county, not the state, would set the pay for election board members, who are appointed by the governor.

The Washington County delegation met Wednesday to decide whether to file a House version of the bill, even though the board of elections voted against the proposal.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said all five county commissioners favor the proposal.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, strenuously criticized how the proposal was handled. He said it's unfair not to invite the election board and delegates in for a discussion.

He also accused Shank of trying to steamroll Eileen W. Wiggins, the election board president, during a telephone call.

"I think it's very heavy-handed for somebody in our delegation to tell the chairman of the board of elections that if you don't like the way we're doing things down here, then run for office," Donoghue said. "...Or to say, 'I am the senator and I can do what I want.'"

Shank denied the conversation with Wiggins went that way. "She had some pointed words for me, and I tried to stay cool and collected," he said.

Asked later to elaborate, Shank said: "She was angry .... What I tried to convey (was that) the delegation gets elected to make these decisions, and we disagreed with what the appointed board said in this matter .... And she proceeded to yell at me some more."

Reached later, Wiggins disputed Shank's characterization.

 "Choice words? I don't use choice words on the telephone," she said.

She said Shank told her, "I'm the senator, and I can override anything that you do."

Assured that the county commissioners support the bill, Donoghue joined the five Republicans at the meeting in voting to submit it.

The county's election board has three full members — Wiggins and John R. Benchoff, who are Democrats, and Republican Clyde J. Tate. Republican Carroll H. Earp and Democrat Sharon L. Washington are alternates.

Board members get $4,500 a year. The president gets $5,000 a year.

Alternates get $75 per monthly meeting, plus $15 an hour for supervising elections, training poll workers and other duties.

This past year, Earp got about $4,100, and Washington got about $3,100, said Kaye E. Robucci, the county's election director.

Wiggins said those were high totals for alternates because it was an election year. In other years, it would be $900 for attending the 12 meetings.

Washington County Commissioners John F. Barr and Terry Baker both said they support the change from alternate members to full members.

Baker said he'd keep the pay "reasonably close" to what it is now.

Barr, a former election board member, said school board members do a lot more work yet earn only a little more. He suggested raising pay for school board members and lowering pay for election board members, creating a more fair disparity.

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