Towards the start of their Wednesday meeting this week, the three Monroe County commissioners responded in turn to remarks made by county clerk Nicole Browne at last week’s election board meeting.
Commissioner Penny Githens led off, “To hear ourselves and to hear people in our office called liars and obfuscators is very disrespectful.”
As one the three county election board members, Browne had delivered her remarks last week on the topic of the ongoing acrimony between commissioners and the election board about space allocations for the county election division.
Under state law, the county clerk is a board member, along with one appointment made by each of the Republican and Democratic party chairs. All three county commissioners are Democrats, as is Browne.
Browne wants the county elections division to be able to consolidate all of its currently distributed space under one roof, by having the whole Johnson Hardware building at its disposal, instead of just a part of the first floor. The building, aka Election Central, is located on the southwest corner of Madison and 7th Streets.
Browne’s request has enjoyed solid support during public commentary time at meetings of the county commissioners starting in August.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Githens said, “We’re happy to work with the election board and negotiate options to hear their suggestions, but only if the dialogue is respectful.”
That dialogue could continue this week, at a joint meeting between commissioners and the election board, which has been set for Thursday at 1 p.m.
That’s when commissioners want the election board to take a vote on the alternate space that the commissioners have offered to the election division.
The alternate space is in the old NAPA parts building at 3rd and Walnut streets, and in the north end of the Showers building, where city hall is also located.
The NAPA parts building is currently empty. The real estate was acquired with an eye towards using it for the planned expansion of the convention center. It’s owned by the Monroe County Convention Center Building Corporation.
In declining Browne’s request for the entirety of the Johnson Hardware building, commissioners have pointed to the fact that several functions of the probation department are currently housed in the building, on the first and the second floors, and they don’t have an alternate place for the probation department.
In an email message to election board members sent early Wednesday afternoon, commissioner Julie Thomas tried to set the stage for Thursday’s meeting by pointing to the fast-approaching 2022 primary elections: “Time is of the essence. We need to plan now (not in January) to provide the requisite security, lock mechanisms, etc. for these facilities if the Election Board wishes to utilize them.”
Thomas’s email message continues, “If the Election Board chooses to delay this decision, we are not responsible for the outcome.”
Dec. 2, 2021 election board meeting remarks
What specifically did Githens and the other two commissioners find objectionable about Browne’s remarks last week?
In her remarks last week, Browne referred to an email thread between commissioners and Monroe County resident Julie Hardesty: “You may read it differently than I, but as I read through the thread, I find the Commissioners to have responded with revisionist history and outright lies.”
Elsewhere in her remarks, Browne referred to an interaction between election board chair Shruti Rana and county commissioner Julie Thomas, at a Nov. 17 joint meeting between commissioners and the election board. Browne said, “My takeaway was that there was nothing but obfuscation on the part of the board [of commissioners]. They wouldn’t say yes. They wouldn’t say no. They wouldn’t say not yet.”
Since early this year, and even before that, commissioners and the election board have been wrangling over Browne’s space request.
It was in May this year, when county commissioner Lee Jones attended a meeting of the county election board and read aloud a statement asking that the board provide commissioners with information about the election division’s space needs.
Tension between the commissioners and the election board over space allocation dates at least as far back as 2016.
Over the past few months, during public commentary time at weekly commissioner meetings, support has been voiced by several speakers for clerk Nicole Browne’s request that the whole Johnson Hardware building be allocated to the election division
Frustration with the response from commissioners has also been aired.
Among the more forceful turns of commentary came from David Gamage, professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and volunteer poll watcher and election monitor for 2018 elections in Monroe County.
About Browne’s plans, Gamage told commissioners, “I don’t know for sure that these are the right plans. But I know for sure that the responses by all three commissioners have been hostile, negative, uncooperative, proposing alternatives that are in no way feasible, requesting minor revisions of information in ways that are not productive.”
Gamage continued, “And at this point, I view all three of you as enemies of democracy and enemies of voting. And I’ll say for the record here that I plan to make sure that in all three of your future campaigns, whatever those might be, that this is well known by voters, and I plan personally to support your primary opponents in any future campaigns.”
Commissioners have aired their own complaints about the election board, some of them involving the specter that board members have violated Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL) in the course of the protracted tussle about space allocations.
The election board, like the board of commissioners, is a three-member body. Any two election board members would make a quorum, which means no two board members could deliberate, without posting a notice ahead of time that they were planning to meet.
Potential ODL issues came up on one occasion, in connection with a proposal made by local attorney Guy Loftman to the commissioners about a timeline for a transition of the election division to the entire Johnson Hardware building. Loftman’s idea is that the complete takeover of the building would not start until after the 2022 elections. But the building would be completely occupied by the election division in time for the municipal elections in 2023.
Election board chair Shruti Rana asked commissioners at the joint Nov. 17 meeting if they had rejected Loftman’s proposal.
Commissioner Julie Thomas replied to Rana like this: “Did you ever vote on that, yourself? Publicly, take a vote?”
More ODL: Satellite early voting locations
At Wednesday’s regular meeting, commissioner Julie Thomas raised the possibility of potential violations of the Open Door Law by the election board, in connection with satellite early voting locations.
Thomas said, “As residents of Monroe County we are dismayed that some decisions appear to be made outside of public meetings by the election board.” She continued, “Clerk Browne indicated that she has suggested potential early voting satellite locations. But the public has not heard what was suggested, where, and who vetoed them, and what the vote was.”
Thomas added, “The public deserves to know this information. We’d like to point out that per Indiana code, it is incumbent on the members of the election board, and no one else, to make decisions on whether or not there should be satellite voting and where those locations are.”
Thomas was responding in part to Browne’s remarks last week, when Browne described her own work on satellite voting locations as “behind the scenes.”
Browne said, “There is no point in my bringing anything before the [election] board for which I do not believe I would secure a unanimous vote.”
That’s because under state law, a unanimous vote is required to establish additional satellite early voting locations. In that way, satellite early voting locations are like election day vote centers. Monroe County is not a vote center county.
Last week, Browne told the other two election board members, “Quietly and behind the scenes—knowing that I could not communicate with either of you—I have met with Allen County Clerk Nancarrow and his team for satellite options in an effort to reignite the possibility of satellite locations in Monroe County.”
Browne continued, “I vetted some locations for feedback, doing my level best to present possible options that would be as fair and equitable as possible for all of Monroe County voters. I tried to divide the county into a quadrangle. I tried to divide the county into thirds…”
The only additional location for which Browne was able to discern bipartisan support was at the Johnson Creamery building, across the street from the Johnson Hardware building, she said. That’s not a building under county government control.
Who was Browne talking to about possible satellite voting locations, if not the election board members? Browne told The B Square she had talked to the respective party chairs. The Monroe County Democratic Party chair is Jennifer Crossley. The Republican Party chair is William Ellis, who is a former election board member.
Why doesn’t the GOP object to just one early voting location, in downtown Bloomington, the center of the Democratic Party’s strength?
Reached by The B Square, Ellis said it’s not just the geography that matters—it’s also the cost.
One central location for early voting, Ellis said, is in some sense equitable, because everyone has to vote at the same place.
Ellis elaborated, “The problem is, we’ve got a county where we have one concentration of one party in one place, and the other party spread out in a donut.”
He continued, “For us to actually be fair, we would either have to do one central location and say, take that. Or have one in Ellettsville, one on the south side, one on the west side, and one on the north side probably, for the Washington and Benton townships.”
About the idea of having four or five additional early voting locations, Ellis said, ”Just the cost of that would be astronomical.” But he doesn’t see any middle ground, based on the fairness issue: “It’s either got to be the one location or probably five or six. There’s really no in-between.”
At the Nov. 17 joint meeting, commissioner Julie Thomas explicitly rejected the idea that the party chairs should be making decisions on early voting satellite locations. “We believe it is you all, the election board, not the party chairs, who make this decision,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said, “We did hear that there was a decision made about early voting satellite locations—we can’t find the record of the meeting.” She added, “And we just hope that early voting site considerations will be handled in public meetings and discussed publicly and by statute.”
Hal Turner resigns as GOP election board member
When commissioner Lee Jones attended the monthly meeting in May and asked for the board’s space request, the composition of the group was different from now. Carolyn VandeWiel was the Democratic Party chair’s appointee. Hal Turner was appointed by the Republican Party chair.
In August, Shruti Rana was appointed to fill the Democratic Party’s slot. At last week’s election board meeting, Hal Turner announced that he was resigning effective immediately. Already on the meeting’s Zoom conference call was Turner’s replacement: Donovan Garletts. He’s president of Indiana Limestone Fabricators.
About his departure from the board, Turner said, “I do this for personal reasons. I have thoroughly enjoyed my work with the board up to this point. I consider this to be one of the bright spots of my retirement.”
About Garletts, Turner said, “He’s less than half my age, and more than twice as capable as I am, and will do a great job on this board.” Turner told his colleagues they would be seeing him again soon. “And during the next election cycle, I think you’ll be seeing me as a volunteer, wherever I can be the most help,” Turner said.
Browne reacted to Turner’s news by telling him, “You have been a phenomenal colleague to work with. I will dearly miss working with you.” Addressing Garletts, she said, “Mr. Donovan. I don’t even know you yet. But you have incredible shoes to fill. I look forward to working with you, and we will embrace you and welcome you.”
Browne again addressed Turner: “Mr. Hal, you will be missed. Thank you for your service.”
Photos: Dec. 2, 2021 tour of NAPA building
The election board recessed its Dec. 2 meeting to reconvene later at the old NAPA building at 3rd and Walnut streets to get a tour from the county’s facility and fleet manager, Greg Crohn.