The Williams County Elections Board has set a preliminary date for a hearing on the candidacy of Sheriff Steve Towns.
With Towns present at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, the board, after some discussion, first agreed to hold a hearing, then set it for 4 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, 2020.
Towns was certified by the elections board in October for the March 17, 2020, primary ballot, but his candidacy has been thrown into question after his conviction Nov. 5 in Bryan Municipal Court on a first-degree misdemeanor charge of disseminating confidential information about a child abuse case.
According to Ohio Revised Code 311.01 (B) (5), a candidate for sheriff is disqualified from the ballot if convicted of a first-degree misdemeanor.
Nowaczyk said the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office recommended the board set a hearing date, and that it must be held by Jan. 16, 2020, which is 60 days prior to the March 17, 2020, primary. Election board members agreed to set a hearing date after the Dec. 18 filing deadline for party-affiliated primary candidates.
Nowaczyk said the elections office attorney, Columbus-based firm McTigue & Colombo LLC, suggested a hearing date closer to the Jan. 16, 2020, deadline, to make sure the board has enough time to prepare and to give maximum time for Towns’ court appeals to be heard.
McTigue & Colombo LLC has been retained to advise the elections office on the Towns issue because Williams County Prosecutor Katie Zartman has advised the board she is recusing herself from the case to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest or impropriety.
Towns noted that a formal protest of his candidacy has not yet been filed, but elections board member Scott Towers said the Secretary of State’s Office said there is no requirement that a formal protest be filed in order to hold a hearing.
Board member Paul Duggan questioned whether the board should hold a hearing prior to a protest, but Towers pointed out the Secretary of State’s Office recommended scheduling a hearing as close to the deadline as possible “so then if we do get a protest, we (have a date).”
Towers also suggested that scheduling a hearing, and the fact that it’s an election issue and there is a deadline, could signal the Sixth District Appeals Court to hear the appeal prior to that date. But Duggan, a Bryan-based attorney, said in his experience, that wouldn’t make any difference to the appeals court.
“The only issue before the (appeals court) is, was the conviction of the misdemeanor of the first degree lawful,” Duggan said.
Towns said he’s been advised he could ask for an expedited appeal, but said in light of the lack of a formal protest, he has not done so yet.
“If it comes to that, I can ask for it, but if we don’t have a protest, I don’t see why I couldn’t just be on the ballot,” said Towns.
“The law’s pretty clear that someone with a first-degree misdemeanor is not supposed to be on the ballot. That’s what our legal counsel has said,” Towers said.
Towns maintained that he was qualified for the ballot prior to the conviction and should not be removed from the ballot.
But Towers noted that other elections boards in Ohio do not formally approve a candidate for the ballot prior to the 60-day deadline. “If we would have followed the same procedures ... it wouldn’t even have been approved at that point. So there’s clearly a way to remove somebody at that deadline that is no longer eligible to be on (the ballot),” Towers said.
Towers said if someone files a protest, current law says the board must meet within a “timely manner,” though there is pending legislation to change that timeframe to 10 days.
The Williams County Elections Board has heretofore approved nominating petitions as they are received and verified, often months prior to the deadline. But Nowaczyk said in light of issues that have arisen from Towns being certified for the ballot in October, but receiving a conviction in early November, the board will now wait to certify all petitions until after the filing deadline, but prior to the 78-day certification deadline.
Prior to the meeting, Towns presented elections staff and each board member a folder containing documents that back up his assertions that he should remain on the ballot, including a copy of his appeal, highlighted sections of the ORC, and a list of a dozen issues he has with the process of his conviction along with his claims of other election irregularities.
“The way in which we got to this point, I think, has been manipulated ... by the (county) prosecutor and ... special prosecutor,” Towns told the board, noting that according to his sources at the Buckeye Sheriff’s Association, he is the only sheriff that has ever been charged with an ethics charge prior to a hearing with the Ohio Ethics Commission.
“... If I’m kicked off the ballot at some point, and then I win at appeal in May or June, how am I to be exonerated?” Towns asked.
Besides Towns, Pioneer Police Chief Tim Livengood, former sheriff’s deputy Shaun Fulk and former county wildlife officer Tom Kochert are also on the March 17, 2020, GOP primary ballot.
The deadline to file a protest of a candidate in the March 2020 primary is Dec. 27.
The deadline to file to run as a write-in candidate is Dec. 30, and the deadline to file as a non-party-affiliated independent candidate is March 16, 2020, the day before the March 17, 2020, primary.
The board generally meets in a small boardroom at its office in the East Annex, at 1425 E. High St., Suite 104, Bryan, but Nowaczyk said Wednesday the hearing probably would move down the hall to a larger East Annex conference room.
Towers and Jeff Erb are Republican members of the board and Duggan and elections board chairman Mark Fox are Democrats. Nowaczyk is a Republican while Deputy Director Katrena Ebersole is a Democrat, and they rotate positions based on the party affiliation of the board chairman (i.e. when a Democrat serves as board chairman, a Republican serves as elections director, and vice versa)