Luzerne County Courthouse
                                 File photo

Luzerne County Courthouse

File photo

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Luzerne County’s Election Board members had a frank discussion last week about how involved they can be in political campaigns.

The volunteer board oversees elections, makes determinations on flagged ballots and write-in votes and certifies election results. It consists of four county council-appointed citizens — two Democrats and two Republicans — and a fifth member of any affiliation or no affiliation selected by board members. Democrat Denise Williams currently fills the fifth chairmanship seat.

Williams said she has received complaints from citizens about board members being involved with campaigns and proposed a bylaw amendment prohibiting board members from taking “an active role in the campaign of a candidate or any matter that is subject to an election.”

“When we commit to serving on the board, I think we have a responsibility and duty to all citizens of the county to stay out of the political fray,” Williams said.

Board member Rick Morelli, a Republican, said he understands her premise and initially planned to support her proposal, but he changed his mind after hearing public comment and input from county Controller Walter Griffith.

Griffith said the proposed prohibition was meaningless because the board has no authority to remove members. Attempts to silence board members from free speech could prompt litigation, he added.

Morelli said he fully agrees the board must be “unbiased when it comes to elections,” but he described the proposal’s reference to barring an “active role in campaigns” as vague.

He said he always has been vocal about his opinions and may write letters-to-the-editor as a citizen stating positions on issues of local interest that may be “directed toward voting a certain way or sometimes voting for a certain person.”

“If I do something like that, someone may interpret me as having an active role in a campaign,” Morelli said.

Morelli said he also publicly opposed an April 23 primary election referendum seeking voter approval to convene a county government study commission. Having served on the study commission that drafted the county home rule charter in effect since January 2012, Morelli said he expects some will seek his views on the proposed referendum.

“I’ll share my opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong. Some people may look at that as trying to steer people to vote a certain way,” Morelli said, adding he should not be barred from publicly sharing his past experiences.

While he did not support Williams’ proposal, Morelli said he would never try to stop voters from exercising their right to choose.

“I don’t think that the charter was written for this board to be put together to stop people’s voices and opinions,” Morelli added.

Vice Chairwoman Alyssa Fusaro, a Republican, said she is a singer and often paid to sing the national anthem and perform at events. She said she sang at rallies for Donald Trump and all kinds of events.

“If I’m going to be labeled or told that I can’t do that, that presents a challenge for me. I’m a very vocal person as well, and literally, I sing,” Fusaro said. “I hesitate to even consider something like this when that opens the door to someone judging as to what is support for a specific candidate. What does that look like?”

Fusaro said it is a “dangerous precedent and a dangerous road” attempting to limit board members from attending events and speaking out “on certain subjects or certain things.”

“Personally I’ve tried to maintain where I don’t come out for a specific candidate, but I am a Republican, and a proud one, and nobody’s going to take that away from me,” Fusaro said. “Nobody’s going to take away that part of me or take away my voice in Republican matters.”

Board member Albert Schlosser, a Democrat, asked county Assistant Solicitor Gene Molino the definition of an “active role.”

“If I put a bumper sticker on my car, then I have to get off the board?” Schlosser asked.

Molino said he should not be off the board for that reason.

“I certainly think it’s a slippery slope. It does go too far,” Molino said of the bylaw proposal.

Molino said he generally agrees with the comments made by Griffith and some points made by Morelli and Fusaro. The home rule charter already spells out requirements for election board members, and the state ethics act spells out other prohibitions, he said.

Schlosser asked if election board members can put a political sign in the front yard of their property, and Molino said yes because they still have a right to express their views.

Board members also can sign nomination petitions for candidates and attend political gatherings such as rallies or fundraisers, Molino said.

“I just think it’s best to stay away from this,” he said of the bylaw amendment. “I think you have constitutional issues.”

Schlosser said he has been putting out candidate lawn signs in front of his house for many years and said that has nothing to do with his commitment to “treat everybody fair and go by the law” on behalf of all voters of any affiliation.

“When you come here, you have a job to do, so it shouldn’t affect that,” Schlosser said of serving on the board. He described the proposal as a “free speech issue.”

Board member Daniel Schramm, a Democrat, said he agrees with Molino.

“This really doesn’t concern us,” Schramm said. “If somebody really got out of hand, I think that would become obvious to people.”

Schramm also made another point about politics.

“If you bring it into this room, then it becomes a new issue, and I don’t think anybody has brought anything into the room where you’re bringing your political view and trying to force agendas on people.”

Williams said she believes the public discussion was beneficial and said she won’t further push for a bylaw amendment.

However, she explained her own experience that made her contemplate the matter in the first place.

Early in her service on the board, Williams said she and her husband put campaign signs in their yard.

“I got a lot of grief because people started contacting me and telling me somebody from the other party was complaining that the chair of the Board of Elections had signs in her yard,” she said.

Williams said she has come to agree with the critic and decided to refrain from putting out signs while serving on the board, even though it also means her husband can’t exercise his right to support candidates on his property.

“Personally, I felt that if I’m facilitating these elections and voters count on me to be impartial, then it was bothering me. I don’t want to put yard signs out anymore,” Williams said.

She also now waits until nomination petition-signing events are wrapping up to sign her name instead of mingling with the crowds.

“It’s the public perception. I feel so strongly about trying to be impartial,” Williams said.

Morelli agreed with her message and said election board members have to “do things a little bit differently” when they take on the role. He said the consensus appears to be that board members “still have rights” but must be “conscious of the perception that we give” so their actions don’t reflect negatively on themselves or the board as a whole.

“We can do it, but just use caution and be smart in how we do it,” Morelli said.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.