A judge ruled yesterday that Maryland's elections administrator should remain in her post for at least the next few weeks, citing concerns that efforts to remove her before the Nov. 2 presidential election could pose a "serious and substantial disruption."
The ruling effectively blocks the State Board of Elections' attempt to place Linda H. Lamone on paid leave pending next month's hearing on allegations that she has been insubordinate to the Republican-led board and unresponsive to local election officials.
Displacing Lamone so close to the presidential contest could create chaos, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth said upon granting a preliminary injunction against the board's action. "It's far better to maintain the status quo."
Lamone, a Democrat appointed to her post in 1997 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), told reporters as she left court yesterday that she was very pleased with the ruling and that she looked forward to continuing with election preparations.
Gilles W. Burger, the election board chairman, said in a statement that he was disappointed and that Lamone's presence in the office in advance of next month's hearing could prove to be a distraction to her staff, several of whom were present for yesterday's ruling.
Democrats have accused the board of trying to oust Lamone so Republicans can gain a tighter grip on the state's election machinery. The state elections administrator has far-reaching authority over local election boards and can play a pivotal role in resolving contested elections, such as Maryland's 1994 gubernatorial race, which was decided by fewer than 6,000 votes.
Charges drawn up this month against Lamone make no mention of her partisan affiliation but detail about a dozen episodes that the board contends are grounds for her removal. Under state law, state elections administrators can be removed only by the vote of four of the five board members for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause."
The charges against Lamone have not been publicly released but a copy was reviewed last week by The Washington Post. Allegations include ignoring the chairman's directive to attend a board meeting rather than a congressional hearing and dismissing local board suggestions for improving election administration as "whining."
Silkworth's ruling was confined to the issue of whether the board has the authority to suspend Lamone before giving her a chance to contest those charges. Though he does not plan to issue a final ruling before next year, Silkworth said Lamone appears likely to prevail based on arguments he heard last week.
Lamone's attorneys argued that the law governing the removal of an elections administrator does not allow the board to place her on administrative leave.
The attorney general's office, which represented the board, countered that the authority could be found in state personnel regulations.
In his ruling, Silkworth noted that such leave can be imposed for only 10 working days and that the board's action made no mention of a time period or rationale for Lamone's removal.
Silkworth also said that Lamone's reputation would be irreparably harmed if she were suspended and that public confidence in the election could be undermined.
"The public has a strong interest in the integrity of the state's election process," Silkworth said, noting the "chaos" that ensued after the close 2000 presidential election in Florida.
The election board has scheduled a three-day hearing in mid-October during which Lamone will be allowed to defend herself against the board's charges before an administrative law judge.
Silkworth's ruling effectively allows Lamone to stay on the job until that process concludes, which will likely be after the Nov. 2 presidential election, representatives on both sides said.
Democrats have accused the election board of acting on behalf of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). A spokesman declined to comment on yesterday's developments.
"The governor does not comment on personnel matters, particularly those over which he has no authority, such as this one," said spokesman Henry P. Fawell.