Maryland elections chief Linda H. Lamone asked the courts yesterday to stop the state elections board from removing her from her post.
Lamone's action followed a board vote late Thursday to suspend her with pay and to file charges that seek to remove her for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause."
An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge will consider Lamone's request for a restraining order against the board in a hearing Tuesday morning.
The board's decision to suspend Lamone, which was announced yesterday, triggered an angry response from Senate and House leaders, who vowed to immediately take "necessary steps to restore the independence of the state's election office."
"The action taken by the board today, prior to having a hearing on any charges of misconduct, is an illegal removal of the independent election regulator, a blatant abuse of political power and an embarrassment to Maryland," Miller said in the statement.
Elections Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger denied the charge. He said the panel acted because of complaints by several county elections boards and others relating to the management of the elections office.
"This has nothing to do with partisan politics," Burger said.
The board, which offered no specifics on what Lamone is alleged to have done wrong, named Prince George's County elections chief Robin Downs Colbert as acting state elections administrator.
Colbert worked for more than a decade in a variety of posts for Gene M. Raynor when Raynor was state elections administrator.
Ehrlich recently named Raynor to the five-member elections board. Lamone had replaced him when former Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed her elections administrator in July 1997. Raynor, who is a longtime close associate of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, has been critical of Lamone and once said he thought she should be "tossed out on her ear."
Although he was at Thursday's closed-door meeting, Raynor did not appear with other board members as they announced their decision yesterday to suspend Lamone. Board members said Raynor had left for Ocean City for the holiday weekend.
Ehrlich had made it known for more than a year that he wanted to replace Lamone.
Many Maryland Republicans are still bitter over the disputed 1994 gubernatorial race between Democrat Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a contest that was decided by fewer than 6,000 votes and landed in court amid charges of fraud and misconduct.
That occurred during Raynor's tenure as Maryland's elections chief. He is a Democrat and remains one, although he endorsed Ehrlich in the last gubernatorial election.
Standing in a court hallway yesterday, Lamone told reporters that she "inherited an office that was in shambles, and my staff and I have built it into one of the finest in the nation."
She added, "My only concern is with the integrity of the election process at this time."
Lamone's attorney - Timothy F. Maloney, a former state legislator - said the board's attempt to suspend her was "patently unlawful."
"We now have two people claiming a single office, and that is going to create chaos in the Maryland elections process, and this needs to be settled by the court," Maloney said.
Burger said the board sought and received legal advice from the office of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. in its decision to suspend Lamone.
The board delegated its authority to conduct a hearing on removing her to an independent agency, the Office of Administrative Hearings, Burger said.
At a hearing scheduled for Oct. 13-15, Lamone "will be afforded an opportunity to present witnesses, to cross-examine witnesses, to present evidence and testify," Burger said. Such hearings are normally closed but can be held in public if Lamone makes a request in writing for open hearings.
After these hearings conclude, Burger said, an administrative judge will issue "findings of fact" to the board. The panel will then decide whether to dismiss Lamone. She could appeal the decision in Circuit Court.
Burger said he is confident the change of elections administrators will not disrupt Maryland's ability to conduct the presidential election Nov. 2.
"The fact that it's two months before the election is just happenstance," Burger said. "My desire was to have this happen earlier, but we couldn't."
Colbert, the acting administrator, also said she expects no problems.
"There's a very professional staff there, and they will be able to deliver services as they have in the past, no matter who is at the helm," Colbert said.
But some legislators disagree.
"I think this kind of a coup is outrageous," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It has a huge disruptive potential, to chop off the head of the elections agency right before the election."
Frosh said he doubts the board will be able to prove that Lamone is incompetent.
"She's the president-elect of the National Association of Election Administrators," Frosh said. "She's not incompetent."
He said that means the board will have to show misconduct or other good cause.
"When you're doing it two months before the presidential election, you better have something that registers very high on the Richter scale," Frosh said. "If it's policy disagreements or some minor kind of misconduct, I don't think that flies."
Ehrlich appoints members of the elections board, which by state law must be bipartisan.
Democrats cried foul when Raynor was appointed to a vacant seat that was reserved for Democrats, because of his endorsement of Ehrlich and comments that Lamone should be removed.
The board's efforts to force her removal over the past year had faltered because of a law that took effect in 1998 to insulate the elections office from partisan politics. The law requires a supermajority vote of four members.
When the board met in closed session to discuss Lamone's fate Thursday, Raynor was the only Democratic member present. The other Democrat resigned Monday because of ill health.