Maryland's Republican-dominated Board of Elections took a key step toward ousting its Democratic administrator yesterday, emerging from a seven-hour, closed-door session with a list of complaints it intends to use as a legal justification to replace Linda H. Lamone as early as today, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
The move enraged Democrats, who called it a partisan bid to give Republicans control of the state's election apparatus.
"I think this is most unfortunate," said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's). "We're just a couple of months before a presidential election, and they're talking about replacing Linda Lamone, who has put together the voting system the citizens will use."
Lamone, a Democrat appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), did not return calls seeking comment late yesterday. Under state law, she is allowed "an ample opportunity" to respond to the board's charges.
Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger said last week that the board had asked a state investigator to review "multiple complaints" about Lamone from local elections officials. A representative of the state attorney general's office said the probe does not involve criminal conduct.
Burger, a Republican, emerged from the marathon session about 8:45 p.m., but he said he could not share details of the board's discussions until today. "There are numbers of reasons why I can't tell you what we did tonight, and you'll find out tomorrow," he said.
A source familiar with the proceedings, however, said Lamone would be presented with the allegations today and placed on leave with pay. The source would not speak publicly because the board's actions involve a personnel issue. The source did not detail the conduct in question. The four board members present voted unanimously, the source said.
Speculation among staff members centered on Robin Downs Colbert, election administrator for Prince George's County, as a likely replacement for Lamone. Colbert, a Democrat, was spotted by staff members at a hotel across the street from the Board of Elections headquarters in Annapolis.
Burger called yesterday's emergency meeting of the board with just one day's notice and would say publicly only that the closed session would deal with personnel issues.
Allies of Lamone said the meeting appeared to be part of a blatantly partisan effort to install an election chief more friendly to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) before he faces reelection in 2006.
"I think this is outrageous," said Helen Koss, a Democrat who served as chairman of the election board for eight years before the end of her term in July 2003. "I don't know what they're trying to dig up or make up about" Lamone.
By law, Lamone can be removed only by the vote of at least four of the board's five members for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause." Since July, when Ehrlich replaced a Democratic member with one more closely allied with him, Democrats have expected the board to move against Lamone.
The law says that before removing an administrator, board members must present the administrator with written charges stating the grounds for dismissal and provide time for a response.
Several lawyers joined the four board members present yesterday during their deliberations.
The board retained the services this summer of a seasoned investigator to look into complaints allegedly received about Lamone's leadership. Democratic lawmakers heavily criticized the move when it became public last week, saying they were particularly concerned that the board had borrowed the investigator from a state agency that typically probes prison abuses.
The election board has been a source of political tension since Ehrlich took office in 2003. By law, three of the board's five seats are reserved for members of the governor's party. The governor, however, makes appointments of members from the opposing party as well.
In July, Ehrlich unexpectedly replaced one of the Democrats, Bobbie S. Mack of Prince George's County, with Gene Raynor of Baltimore.
Raynor, a former state elections chief, is a longtime associate of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who has worked closely with Ehrlich, despite their party differences. Raynor's appointment must eventually be approved by the Democrat-controlled state Senate. But he can serve until lawmakers vote on the nomination, and the General Assembly is not scheduled to convene until January.
Mack, who was the board's only black member, has sued Raynor and Ehrlich in an effort to regain her seat.
Meanwhile, the board's other Democrat, Rick Menikheim, resigned this week, citing health problems. Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said a replacement was not imminent.
Under Lamone's leadership, the election board has forged ahead with a controversial plan to use electronic voting machines statewide in November. An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge this week turned back a challenge from a group of voters seeking to require a paper record for the touch-screen machines, which the group argued are unreliable.
Koss said that changes championed by Lamone, including a more centralized election system, had bruised some local officials. But Koss said Lamone was doing a job that legislators and other state leaders had directed.
Lamone was not present at election board offices during yesterday's deliberations and did not return phone calls placed to her home. Her staff said she was in the District attending a conference on homeland security.