D.C. flap over dwindling election panel

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 22, 2010; B04

The sudden resignation of the chairman of the D.C. election board threatens to weaken oversight of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary and has rekindled a power struggle between the mayor and the D.C. Council over appointments to boards and commissions.

Chairman Errol Arthur announced this week that he is resigning Aug. 2 to become a magistrate judge in D.C. Superior Court. Because there is an existing vacancy, the three-member Board of Elections and Ethics would lack the quorum needed to function until at least one new member is seated.

With Mayor Adrian M. Fenty facing council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in this year's Democratic mayoral primary, the selection of board members is quickly becoming entangled in election year politics.

Administration officials said the mayor may have to make emergency interim appointments to the board if he and the council, which is on summer recess, are unable to agree on nominees. If that occurs, Fenty will have unilaterally seated a majority of the board charged with overseeing an election in which he is a candidate.

"I don't think that is correct," Gray said. "To not have the legislative body involved in something of this enormity is highly questionable."

Fearful that having a powerless board could make it difficult, if not impossible, to certify a winner or oversee a recount, council members are vowing to return from recess to deal with the vacancies. In recent days, council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) have reached out to the administration to head off a showdown.

On Tuesday, Catania and Cheh gave City Administrator Neil O. Albert a list of a dozen possible nominees whom the council would confirm. Cheh and Catania would not publicly release the names, but Catania said most of them are "retired judges, former U.S. attorneys [or] former members of the Federal Election Commission."

"This was a genuine effort to reach out from one institution to another to try to resolve what could be a tricky situation," Catania said. "We provided . . . a list of names that wouldn't be controversial."

But Fenty, who has clashed with the council over appointments, said Wednesday night he was not sure whether he would accept the names that Catania and Cheh gave him. "We already had names we were considering," Fenty said earlier in the day.

The board has been functioning with two members since February 2009 because the council and the mayor have not agreed on a replacement for Lenora Cole, the board's former minority party member, who resigned after the 2008 elections.

In November 2009, Fenty nominated Republican Mital Gandhi, a member of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, to fill the vacancy. But the council tabled the nomination last month after council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) raised questions about Gandhi's experience.

Gandhi and leaders of the D.C. Republican Committee have expressed alarm that they were not consulted before Catania and Cheh submitted recommendations to Fenty, and they are pushing to have the council reconsider Gandhi's nomination.

Albert sent Catania a letter Wednesday stating that D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles has "opined that in emergency circumstances," the mayor "has the authority to make interim appointments to boards and commissions."

Cheh questioned the accuracy of the administration's interpretation, but she said she hopes to avoid controversy. "If we work together on this, there will be no emergency," said Cheh, chairman of the council committee that oversees elections.

Meanwhile, Fenty said Wednesday that he is considering vetoing council legislation that would make it a crime to pay someone to vote or to register to vote. The measure was approved after allegations of vote-buying at a recent mayoral straw poll.

Fenty said it is ill-advised for elected officials to change the law so close to an election.

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