Maryland's election administrator was permitted by a judge yesterday to return to work pending a court hearing Friday on the legality of the State Board of Elections' decision to suspend her.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth issued a temporary restraining order, effectively blocking the board's decision last week to put Linda H. Lamone on administrative leave with pay.

The move by the Republican-controlled board was the first step in an attempt to oust Lamone, a Democrat, from a position she has held since 1997, when she was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). Board members say they have received numerous complaints about Lamone's leadership, which they are prevented by law from detailing. Democrats say the move was purely political and poorly timed, coming less than two months before the Nov. 2 presidential election.

"I obviously am very happy to be back at work," Lamone told reporters upon returning to her office in Annapolis after a morning court appearance. "There's a lot to get done between now and the elections."

As Lamone returned to the office, she was greeted with cheers from about a dozen employees. Three of her senior staff members attended the court session with her.

Lamone acknowledged that the controversy about her future has become a distraction at a time when the agency is busy preparing ballots and is engaged in numerous other projects, some related to Maryland's first statewide use of electronic voting machines in a general election.

On his way out of court, election board Chairman Gilles W. Burger (R) told reporters that despite Lamone's return, Robin Downs Colbert would continue to serve as "acting administrator" of the state agency.

Colbert, Prince George's County elections administrator, was named to the post Friday. Burger declined to say whether Lamone or Colbert, also a Democrat, would be in charge for the rest of the week.

Silkworth's order, however, spelled out that until Friday, Lamone would "continue to perform the duties of administrator of elections" and that the board could not "interfere with access to her office and the staff of the State Board of Elections."

In a memo from Burger on Friday, Lamone was directed to turn in her keys and collect any personal items from her office.

"While on administrative leave, you are divested of the authority to act as the state administrator and are directed not to return to the worksite," the memo said.

Lamone's attorneys contend that there is no provision in the law that allows the board to suspend an elections administrator. The law states that the administrator can be removed by the vote of four of the five board members for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause," but only after being given "ample" time to present a defense.

Burger told reporters last week that Lamone would have that opportunity during closed hearings scheduled for Oct. 13 to 15 before an administrative law judge. The election board will make a final decision about whether to retain Lamone after receiving "findings of fact" from the judge, Burger said.

Burger said last week that the decision to sideline Lamone while the complaints are pending was in the agency's best interest and in her best interest.

"I want her to be without distraction," Burger said. "I don't want to hamstring her."

Democrats say it's the election board that has created a troubling distraction. "With less than two months to go before the election, the last thing the voters of Maryland need is uncertainty," U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer said in a statement.

LINDA H. LAMONELinda H. Lamone, who is Maryland's election administrator, is shown last week after asking a judge to block an attempt to oust her. Cheers greeted her as she returned to work yesterday.