In the Republican primary for Delaware County commissioner, the appropriateness of one candidate's decision to enter the race at all has become a key issue for his opponents and the county GOP's leadership.
Commissioner Ken O'Brien, whose current term does not expire until 2017, is one of three candidates running in the May 6 primary to be the Republican candidate to replace outgoing Commissioner Dennis Stapleton, who is not seeking re-election. The county's Re-publican Central Committee would select someone to fill O'Brien's current term if he goes on to win Stapleton's seat.
With the election fast approaching, Robert Mann, chairman of the Delaware County Republican Party, asked O'Brien to withdraw from the race "in the interest of the integrity and public confidence in the electoral system" in a letter dated Thursday, April 17.
Mann said many of the potential voters he's spoken with do not realize O'Brien would remain a commissioner whether he wins or loses the primary. He said he waited until last week to release his letter because he was hoping O'Brien would withdraw on his own.
"I think Ken's presence (in the primary) has created confusion from the start," Mann said.
O'Brien responded the same day in a letter that asked for Mann to resign his position as GOP chairman. He questioned whether Mann asked for him to withdraw because Mann supported another candidate in the primary: Genoa Township Trustee Barb Lewis.
Mann said his call for O'Brien to withdraw had nothing to do with advocacy for another candidate.
O'Brien is running against Lewis and business owner Mike Kelley, who lives in Scioto Township. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Jacob Fathbruckner of Delaware in the general election.
Lewis said O'Brien's decision to enter the race was unprecedented in the county. She said the appointment of county commissioners should occur only when a commissioner unexpectedly has to leave office in the middle of a term.
"All the voters should decide who their elected officials are," she said. "That's the way our republic works."
Kelley said the idea of the Republican Central Committee having to appoint a replacement for a commissioner who was staying on the board struck him as undemocratic.
"I'm not so certain what was best for Delaware County would happen," he said.
O'Brien, a Berlin Township resident, said he was running in part because he did not think the other candidates had enough experience to govern effectively at the county level.
He said he thought some highly qualified candidates stayed out of the race because they assumed Stapleton would seek re-election.
O'Brien said if he won Stapleton's seat, the Republican Central Committee would be able to thoroughly examine a full range of possible replacements for the rest of his current term.
"There (would be) a wide variety of very highly qualified candidates that the Central Committee can and will consider," he said.
Mann said O'Brien originally told party officials he was entering the primary to oppose Stapleton. Now that Stapleton is out of the race, Mann said he was not certain why O'Brien was still running.
"(O'Brien) has not provided to me any credible reasons for what he's doing," Mann said.
O'Brien said his concerns about his current primary opponents involved questions about their experience and judgment.
"(Kelley) doesn't have the experience that I have and the track record," he said.
Lewis also questioned whether Kelley had the experience necessary to be an effective commissioner.
"Mr. Kelley has never held an elected administrative office or managed a multimillion dollar budget like I have," she said. "That experience is very valuable."
Kelley said while he may not have experience as an elected official, his 23 years in corporate purchasing and experience owning a small business have prepared him adequately for the job.
"It's the business of Delaware County, and it should take someone with business experience," he said.
Kelley, a member of the conservative John Birch Society, is the owner of Ostrander Implement and Farm Center.
While Lewis has experience as an elected official, O'Brien said he disagreed with her positions on key issues, including the future of EMS services in the county.
Currently, the county's EMS department has 10 stations, some of which are located in communities, such as Genoa and Orange townships, that also offer EMS services through their fire departments. The county supports the service with a 0.5 percent sales tax.
Lewis said she backs a plan that would have the county use a portion of its EMS tax money to contract for EMS services from the existing fire departments in the city of Delaware and Genoa, Harlem, Liberty and Orange townships.
That plan, which has been backed by officials in those municipalities, would end duplication of services in those communities, she said. She said the plan would free up resources that are currently duplicated in the southern portion of the county so they could instead be used in the northern portion.
O'Brien said the current system "works wonderfully," adding that the townships covered by two EMS services chose to pass fire/EMS levies that paid for the additional service. He said he disagrees with the plan Lewis supports.
"There are some portions (of the plan) that are appealing, but you can't implement that without unraveling the whole system," he said.
Kelley said he would be hesitant to change the way the current system operated without a strong signal from the voters or a consensus among local governments.
"From township to township to township, they all have a different view on it," he said.
Lewis said she has a solid record of helping to deliver effective government services to Genoa Township residents while keeping costs down. She described herself as a fiscal conservative, but also a "constructive conservative."
She said she would bring a spirit of civility and cooperation to the board.
"I really realize the importance of listening to others and working with others," she said.
Kelley said that, if elected, he would push to re-examine the way the county approaches economic development. He said the county currently focuses too much time and money on courting large retailers instead of firms from other sectors.
Kelley said while large retailers can create many jobs, they also can have a negative effect on small businesses already located in the county.
"The take-home is, maybe we don't need to focus on retail because it has the most-damaging ripple effect," he said.
O'Brien said he would continue to push for efficient, effective government at the county level if he is elected to Stapleton's seat.