The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday denied Stark County Sheriff Timothy Swanson's request to limit the number of candidates that county Democrats can consider Wednesday when they meet to select a new sheriff.
George Maier will get a second chance to become Stark County's sheriff when Democrats meet tonight.
The Ohio Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will not stop the Stark County Democratic Central Committee from considering Maier, who served as sheriff for nine months, or any other candidate when it meets at 5:30 p.m. to select a new sheriff.
It's still unclear whether the central committee will determine whether Maier meets the strict qualifications to be sheriff.
Without elaborating, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor signed the court's decision to deny a request filed by acting Stark County Sheriff Timothy Swanson and Sheriff Lt. Louis Darrow seeking to limit the number of candidates Democrats could consider tonight. They wanted the committee to consider only Darrow and Hartville Police Chief Lawrence Dordea — the two candidates who were deemed qualified in February when the committee met to fill the seat vacated by Sheriff-elect Michael McDonald, who resigned due to illness.
Instead, the central committee will be able to consider: Maier, Darrow, Dordea and Summit County Sheriff Lt. Douglas Smith. Dordea is the lone Republican.
The meeting will be held at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church at 4705 Fairhaven Ave. NW and is open to the public.
Attorney Gregory Beck, who represents Swanson and Darrow, said the Supreme Court's decision only allows the central committee to move forward with its meeting tonight. It did not rule on the merits of the case, which means that it could later side with Swanson and Darrow and disqualify Maier and Smith as candidates, he said.
He said the court also could rule on his pending request to speed up the timeframe for filing legal arguments in the case, which would automatically delay tonight's meeting; central committee members also could choose to postpone tonight's vote until the court makes a final decision.
Randy Gonzalez, chairman of the Stark County Democratic Party, plans to proceed with the vote as scheduled. He said the approval of the majority of the committee members present would be needed to postpone the vote — a move he said could jeopardize the committee's ability to appoint a new sheriff within 45-day window outlined under state law.
"We're not going to give up the office to help Greg Beck's legal battle," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he expects a lively discussion tonight, similar to previous meetings such as when the central committee appointed a Republican as the new county treasurer in 2011.
"If you can't agree to disagree, then you shouldn't be in politics," he said.
Gonzalez said the meeting format remains as it was in February, including the requirement that committee members sign their name to their ballot for their vote to count.
"We've done this for every single vacancy in office," Gonzalez said. "Only difference here is that somebody (Swanson and Darrow) sued us."
In February, at least one central committee member lobbied for the committee to cast secret ballots to avoid possible intimidation. The party's executive committee has since changed its bylaws to reflect the state and national party's rules against secret ballots.
Among the first hurdles for the committee tonight will be to decide whether each of the four candidates meet the qualifications. Under Ohio law, a sheriff must meet nine criteria, including serving as a full-time peace officer within the past four years and either serving as a supervisor for two years within the past five years or completing at least two years of post-secondary education.
On Nov. 6, the state Supreme Court removed Maier from office because it determined that Maier's duties as the assistant director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety did not qualify as full-time law enforcement experience due to his activities of supervising the agency's human resources office and equal opportunity programs.
Maier, who has been working as a full-time deputy at the Harrison County Sheriff's Office since Nov. 8, believes his new road patrol experience satisfies the qualification the court said he lacked.
Swanson, Darrow and others, such as Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero, disagree. Beyond their claim that Democrats should consider only Darrow and Dordea for the post, they also question whether Maier meets the supervisory or educational requirements for sheriff.
The Democrats' new appointee would serve as sheriff until voters elect a new sheriff during the November 2014 general election.
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