The Franklin County commissioners approved more than $1.2 million Jan. 3 for the Franklin County Board of Elections to meet payroll and other expenses for the month of January.

But one commissioner said he won't approve any further monthly allotments unless elections officials finalize a budget agreement that includes spending for public-service advertisements informing residents about early voting and the county's new voting machines.

The county also is withholding cost-of-living and merit raises for elections board employees, pending a final memorandum of understanding.

"Either they're going to agree to voter education or I'm not going to vote for this," said Commissioner John O'Grady, a Democrat. "I'm not going to play this game all year."

The commissioners did not include appropriations for the board of elections in the 2019 budget resolution they adopted last month, instead leaving $9.4 million in reserves and indicating they will allot monthly expenses to ensure elections operations continue.

The move came after the two Republican members of the elections board blocked spending for advertising in advance of the November general election in a 2-2 tie with the two Democratic board members.

The Republicans, who are the minority party in Franklin County, claimed advertising to educate voters was unnecessary because the location of the board of elections office for early voting hadn't changed in a few years and because voters knew when Election Day was thanks to heavy campaign advertising and media coverage.

The Republican board members later declined to sign a memorandum agreeing to spend $245,000 on public-service advertisements in 2019 promoting early voting sites and explaining how new voting machines being purchased and implemented this year will work.

"It is obvious that we will be able to communicate with the voters about matters of interest to them without spending tens of thousands of dollars on hired outside media consultants and hundreds of thousands of dollars buying short television ads," said Brad Sinnott, one of the Republican board members.

O'Grady said the elections board members would have to answer to the public if they continue to block spending.

"We're the largest county in the state," he said. "We're the fastest-growing county in the state. We have voters to educate."

Commissioner Kevin Boyce, a Democrat, said he agreed with O'Grady's position, but he doesn't necessarily plan to vote against monthly appropriations moving forward.

"I think he's right. I agree with Commissioner O'Grady's frustration and concern," Boyce said. "The board of elections has to operate, and we've got a requirement to provide communication and services to the residents with regards to elections. That needs to be worked out."

Commissioner Marilyn Brown, a Democrat, was out of town Jan. 3, but supported the January appropriation for the elections board, remaining hopeful that a resolution can be reached in coming weeks, said Mike Hochron, her policy director.

David Payne, the county's assistant elections director, said talks about a communications plan continue among elections board members, with hopes of reaching an agreement that Democrats and Republicans can support. The panel meets Thursday, Jan. 10.

Elections director Ed Leonard said without continuing appropriations, employees will not be paid.

"I'm not sure that we could continue to function," he said. "We're going to continue working over the course of the next month on the communication plan that we think can hopefully resolve the stalemate. That's really all that we can do at this point."

County administrator Kenneth Wilson said elections employees will not receive raises other county employees are receiving until an agreement is reached.When that happens, he said, he will recommend the increases be retroactive to Jan. 1.

Sinnott called the move "a terrible attack on the hardworking men and women of both parties who do excellent (work) each year in conducting local elections. ... Many of them have salaries well below $50,000."

mkovac@dispatch.com

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