EATON — After much discussion between the two parties, an agreement regarding new office space was reached last week by the Preble County Board of Elections and the Preble County Commissioners, and the BOE agreed to drop ongoing litigation against the county.
On Monday, Dec. 20, Preble County BOE officials met with Preble County Commissioners regarding the battle for additional, accessible, and secure office space which predates the current commission.
The meeting began with a presentation from Commissioner Adam Craft regarding a “field trip” he had taken a week prior to the offices of the Miami County Board of Elections.
“Their facility is located in the basement of their courthouse in the older building there in the middle of town,” Craft said of Miami County. “And then I went to Darke County as well. Their facility is located as a shared facility with their board of health.”
“What this presentation is going to kind of show you is a little bit about what I learned as I went through everything with them,” Craft continued. “I asked them a series of questions. I tried to keep the questions consistent at each place I went to. I kind of had them walk me through what a day in the life of a board of elections worker is in their county. And then also I asked them what their election process looks like. How they unloaded, how they loaded, what they used for storage, how they tested machines.”
Craft continued to share a visual presentation of the information he learned during his time at each of the other BOE locations.
“So, I guess this kind of gets me back to, let’s get back to the nuts and bolts of what was asked of the commissioners,” he said. “I know I don’t know what conversations were had previous to Jan. 1, but I have been privy to the conversations that we’ve had since Jan. 1, with you all and Commissioners Vonderhaar, Haber and myself. The requests that were made of us were: all on one floor, adequate parking, ADA accessible or able to be made accessible, and renovated to meet the needs of the department.
“I think we can all agree that we’ve talked about all of these things — the office flow, early voting, training room, storage space. You guys are looking for a place that functions and meets your needs and that’s what we set out to do.
“That brings us to the purchase of Junction Village,” he continued. “I know that there’s been some rumors going around that we purchased that and we’re just sticking you guys in the leftovers. And I will say, when the board considered the purchase of Junction Village Mall, it was with those requests in mind: Could we get a facility that we can easily convert to ADA requirements? Could we get a facility that was all on one floor? Could we get a facility that was all put together that was able to be converted and able to flow like your office would need? Could we get a facility that would be easy for everyone to find and provide really good equal access for voters across this county? And I feel like we’ve done that with this mall purchase. We have over 3,000 square feet of dedicated space for the Board of Elections.”
He went on to note, the commission has also committed to providing an office consultant who works with Boards of Elections who was recommended by the Ohio Secretary of State. BOE officials pointed out, the recommended firm works with office furniture design and layout, not architecture, and that they actually hire a separate outside firm for architectural work.
A recent letter the commission sent to the BOE was the impetus for the Dec. 20 meeting, according to the BOE.
The letter told the BOE the offer of space needed to be accepted by Dec. 31, and the BOE needed to pass a resolution agreeing to the space and dismissing the lawsuit.
“Right now what we’ve got in the courthouse, in all of our different spots, is an average of about 3,800 square feet,” Deputy Director Lisa Bruns said. “So our intent is to not to cause problems with anybody, but we when we move, it’s going to be forever for our lifetimes. We want to make sure we’ve got enough space, that we’ve done a good deed for our staff and for the community and for our county.”
She continued, regarding the offered space in Junction Village Mall, “It’s just we don’t see how we can fit into specifically (units) six and seven. And so, when we spoke with our attorney who was furnished to us free of charge from the prosecutor’s office, he said, ‘well, you know, get back with them.’
“With your letter stating, ‘it’s this way or not,’ we wanted to come back to you, with maybe one more chance to throw out the olive branch of give and take,” Bruns continued. “We spoke this morning and we were looking at spaces six and seven, but perhaps if we could split space five. which is the 2,000 square feet, that would give us the double lock and key storage. It also gives us access to that double door that we had talked about originally that could have the roll up door for security.”
BOE officials discussed the possibility of having an additional 2,000 square feet which would allow the county room for an 1,000 square foot general meeting space at Junction Village.
Commissioner Rachael Vonderhaar took issue with the idea the BOE was getting their attorney advice free of charge. “My other question related to this, you mentioned ‘free of charge’ on the attorney that’s being utilized. That is a trade out of ours. Preble County is trading out hours with another county,” she said. “So yes, we are paying for the hours because county work is not getting done when we’re using one of our attorneys to trade out to another county as an offset. So, there is a calculation of value that goes along with what’s taking place.
“Because of the way this situation is set up, we have outside counsel that’s getting paid for. Then we have the Prosecutor’s Office that is trading hours in other areas for your attorney that you’re utilizing. So, there’s there’s a trade-off of ours that’s taking place,” Vonderhaar explained. “That has a value to it too, because that’s county work that’s not getting done in-house. Those hours are getting traded.”
After additional discussion of the facility, layout, security and other issues, commissioners agreed to provide the BOE with the back of half of unit five in Junction Village Mall if the board would drop the legal action against the county.
Board of Elections officials later moved into their own separate meeting and then returned to the commissioners’ meeting with a resolution, which Bruns read: “Robert Wood (Board of Elections member) made a motion for the Preble County Board of Elections to offer a compromise to the Preble County Board of Commissioners, that the Preble County Board of Elections will accept spaces six and seven and open negotiations on space five not to exceed 1,100 square feet. The spaces will be gutted and remodeled with Innovative Office Solutions’ design to provide maximum flexibility, space, and verify it meets federal, state and local requirements for accessibility and security. Relocation and remodeling costs will be covered by the Preble County Board of Commissioners. If the Preble County Commissioners pass a resolution to accept the above compromise and nullify the Dec. 31 deadline stated in the letter sent to the Preble County Board of Elections, dated 12-6-2021, the Preble County Board of Elections agrees to accept the above compromise also, and drop the pending lawsuit immediately.”
According to Bruns, the BOE’s vote on the resolution was passed in a unanimous vote.
Commissioners passed their own resolution to rescind the Dec. 31 deadline and accepted the BOE’s resolution to proceed.