Choice of words leads to hint of election committee unfairness in directors race
By Greg Ellison
(July 22, 2021) What was intended to be a closed session meeting Sunday afternoon to discuss whether to respond to accusations of political bias by the Ocean Pines Elections Committee instead turned into a 45-minute open session, with the Board of Directors deciding not to issue a position statement.
The charge of unfairness came after the second candidate forum held last Tuesday, when only incumbent Frank Daly and challenger David Hardy appeared, with Stuart Lakernick and Rick Farr unable to attend.
When questioned during the forum why half the field of candidates was absent, Elections Committee Chairman Steve Habeger said Lakernick and Farr had declined to attend.
Farr and Lakernick later posted social media commentary questioning election committee neutrality, with both stating they had not declined but were unable to attend due to schedule conflicts.
Both candidates said the second forum was originally set for June 19, which conflicted with Daly’s 50th wedding anniversary, so the date was changed to July 13.
By contrast, Farr said similar considerations were not provided to him in light of a remembrance ceremony for his recently deceased mother scheduled July 13, while Lakernick, a chiropractic functional neurologist, had informed the election committee he was booked to treat a traumatic brain injury patient.
Sunday’s special meeting opened on a troubled chord with Director Doug Parks questioning the premise.
“There is no reason for us to be having this meeting at this time,” he said.
Parks argued that the rationales for holding the meeting to discuss the fairness issue were outside the boundaries of the board.
“I’m not in favor and advise my board colleagues it’s not a course action we should be pursuing,” he said.
Ocean Pines Association President Larry Perrone quickly disagreed.
“What’s new Larry?” Parks said.
With tensions simmering, Director Camilla Rogers threated to walk out of the meeting if civility wasn’t exhibited.
“We are not going to yell at each other,” she said.
Perrone expounded further, claiming two board candidates had accused the Elections Committee of bias, with the closed sessions discussions intended to consider potential board responses.
“It does fall into the purview of the board,” he said. “Integrity of the election is of the utmost importance.”
Director Tom Janasek also took exception with the hastily convened special meeting.
“This is the first I’ve heard of why we’re even having this meeting,” he said.
Janasek, who largely ignores social media banter, said the last-minute email sent from Perrone to board members contained few details about the meeting agenda.
“We get a meeting request from you saying, ‘I’m having a meeting at this time, if you can’t make it sorry,’” he said. “I have a specific issue with the same thing that has been going on now for quite some time, the non-involvement of all seven members of the board.”
Further, Janasek also questioned the basis for entering closed session.
“The person who runs the Elections Committee is not an employee,” he said. “He’s a volunteer … and as far as I’ve heard he doesn’t want the board involved at all.”
If Habeger was not raising the issue, Janasek asked why the board should address online commentary.
“We’re never going to control social media,” he said. “Having a closed meeting about the election makes us look like we’re trying to influence the election.”
Rogers, who serves as board liaison to the Elections Committee, sided with Janasek.
“The committee does not want the board involved,” she said. “They see themselves as a procedural committee that reports to the board on certain matters.”
Rogers also suggested the board would be overstepping its boundaries by inserting its opinion.
“We are completely out of line in bringing this to a board meeting today,” she said.
Perrone introduced a motion to enter closed session, which Daly seconded to continue discussions and obtain counsel from association attorney Jeremy Tucker prior to voting.
“What’s the deal with going into closed?” he asked.
Tucker said since the matter pertains to an election process any board response has legal implications.
“Discussion in public session would ultimately do a disservice to what you’re trying to protect … the integrity of the election,” he said.
Parks questioned the basis for board members to conclude election integrity was at risk.
“If we went into closed session for every comment that was made negative to this board, we’d be in closed session meetings seven days a week,” he said.
Tucker said social media comments raised far fewer legal concerns than any related board response, while also agreeing with a non-action option proposed by Parks.
“One of the solutions would be not to have a meeting at all,” Parks said.
Tucker said the board lacked both a legal requirement to and restriction from responding to claims of election bias.
“The board does have the ability to weigh in if it chooses to do that,” he said, “It’s a committee working under the board.”
Daly asked who holds the responsibility for assuring board elections are free and fair.
In his opinion, Tucker said the Elections Committee should be allowed to handle any procedural matters unless actual issues of bias are at play.
“It is the responsibility of the board to ensure that the procedures that are in place, and the people that are administering those procedures are operating consistent with their responsibilities and directives of the procedures,” he said.
By contrast, Tucker said the board is not obligated to comment on people outside of their oversight.
“The accusations to address are if the Elections Committee are rigging the election,” he said.
Parks reiterated his earlier contention regarding the constant stream of social media commentary.
“I’d like to challenge us to differentiate between a comment versus a directive that has been created to solicit a specific response from the parties involved,” he said.
Perrone, while providing that a precise method is open to debate, said the issue should be addressed to the community.
“When candidates make accusations of bias that takes it to a different level in my mind,” he said.
Daly, who noted the reported charge was not made against the board, suggested the Elections Committee could defend itself.
“The board should assure the Elections Committee message is shared widely,” he said.
Rogers disagreed based on conversations with Habeger and other committee members.
“Taking a defensive posture is not what the committee wants,” she said.
Janasek said Habeger issued a statement addressing the matter one day after the second forum.
“He said exactly what he did and every step he took,” he said.
Director Dr. Colette Horn proposed authorizing Habeger to write a letter to the editor if he was so inclined.
“There are a lot of people that don’t look at social media and get their news from the newspaper still,” she said.
Tucker asked to review any editorial correspondence drafted by Habeger.
With an apparent solution reached, the board voted unanimously against entering closed session.