Luzerne County Election Board Chairwoman Denise Williams sent the county law office a second request Wednesday for a legal opinion on a proposed council ordinance prohibiting the county administration from transporting mail ballot drop boxes to sites approved by the election board.
Williams also asked if the law division faces a conflict of interest in this situation because two entities it represents – council and the board – may be in conflict.
She has questioned the legality of a government body – council – blocking the independent election board from carrying out its decision to continue providing drop boxes at five county locations.
Councilman Stephen J. Urban, who crafted the ordinance, said the proposal would not prohibit the use of the mailbox-style drop boxes because they could be transported to outside sites by the volunteer citizen election board members themselves.
The proposed ordinance said the county shall not “permit, utilize, fund or compensate any county employee, contractors, third party or any nonprofit groups to logistically move” any drop boxes for county elections.
Newly appointed Chief Solicitor Harry W. Skene replied to Williams Wednesday, saying his office has discussed the matter and is “working on a comprehensive evaluation and solution.”
“Concerning a conflict of interest, be assured that if it is determined that one exists, the Office of Law will arrange for outside counsel,” Skene wrote. “Let us first wait and see what our evaluation shows.”
Skene said he understands the importance of the issue but noted it is “not the only complex legal matter facing the county.”
To advance, Urban’s proposed ordinance must be introduced by at least four of 11 council members and then approved by a majority at a subsequent meeting following a public hearing.
Williams raised the issue of a law office conflict because the law office had concluded last year that council and the board had to each seek outside counsel when they disagreed over the placement of the district attorney’s race on the ballot, she said.
The law office determined it “could not represent two county government entities in conflict with each other,” Williams wrote.
According to her Wednesday email, Williams said the election board has voted multiple times to use drop boxes at designated county locations in past elections and gave those directives to the county election bureau.
Most recently, in March, the board’s three Democrats approved five drop boxes for the May primary and going forward, with opposition from the remaining two Republican members.
Urban’s proposed ordinance appears to be a “blatant interference with and obstruction of the function / role” of the election board and its directive to the bureau, she wrote.
She told council during public comment Tuesday night the ordinance would be a “total overstep.”
Skene had acknowledged there is a strong chance the county would be sued if the ordinance is enacted. It’s unclear how a council majority will proceed, with several members raising concerns about its legality and implications.
Williams told council she and her husband will deliver the drop boxes if it becomes necessary, even though she has a bad back.