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Polivka suit contests Frenchko’s win

WARREN — An acrimonious campaign for Trumbull County commissioner has made its way to the civil docket of the county’s Common Pleas Court.

In a legal action filed Monday, outgoing Democrat Commissioner Daniel Polivka and 66 petitioning voters are contesting the Nov. 3 election of Polivka’s Republican challenger Niki Frenchko. Among the defendants listed in the civil action are Frenchko and the four members of the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

The plaintiffs, represented by Columbus attorney Rick Brunner, are challenging “election irregularities” dealing with questions over Frenchko’s residency. They want a judge to set a hearing in 15 to 30 days and to void any claimed election of Frenchko. The suit also asks the judge either to order the board of elections to declare Polivka the winner of the Nov. 3 vote or for the court to order the board to hold a new election for commissioner.

If the matter isn’t decided by Jan. 3, 2021 — the day the new commissioner term is to begin — the filing asks the judge to fill any commissioner’s post vacancy that results.

The case is assigned to Judge Andrew D. Logan.

Frenchko’s attorney, Joe Szeman, said the latest action is “absolutely baseless.”

“We will be filing a motion with (Logan’s) court seeking to dismiss this action,” Szeman said, noting that a similar lawsuit filed in Franklin County by Brunner prior to the election was dismissed by a judge on Monday.

“These legal maneuvers are on the exact same issue. Their arguments are repetitive,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of these. They are the same thing with just a different label.”

Szeman said Frenchko has already been doing county business even though she won’t take office until Jan. 3.

“Ms. Frenchko, being the commissioner-elect, in the days since the election has spent her time devoted to attending meetings, discussing issues and concerns for her upcoming term of office, and generally preparing to take office on Jan. 3, all while not even being compensated,” he continued. “Daniel E. Polivka, not being satisfied with the will of the people of Trumbull County who clearly had seen enough of his service, or lack thereof, apparently has spent his time devising legal ways to try and subvert the people’s will and hold on to his seat…”

The election board on Nov. 18 certified Frenchko’s election, in which she defeated Polivka by 4,506 votes. Polivka held the office for 16 years.

The campaign season was filled with allegations of wrongdoing from the two candidates aimed at each other. Polivka’s longtime county commissioner colleague, Frank Fuda, openly campaigned for Frenchko.

“There is no case law on this because no one to date has lived two counties away and run in Trumbull or any other county,” Polivka said. “This needs to be decided by the courts, not only for my election, but for future elections throughout Ohio because if there’s residency laws, they should be adhered to. If not, then you should be able to run anywhere you want.”

Brunner, in the legal filing, points to the transcript of the Sept. 8 investigation conducted by the elections board into the questions surrounding Frenchko’s residence. She claimed during the hearing she maintains two residences — in Mentor and Warren. While in Mentor, Frenchko and her daughter live with the city law director, who is Szeman.

The 66 voters who signed the petition argue that because Frenchko admitted to living in Mentor, where her daughter attends high school, Ohio law mandates she is not a resident of Trumbull County.

“We … contend and believe that Niki Frenchko did not and does not have, and has not had a residence in Trumbull County … for as long as her minor daughter of whom she is sole custodian and residential parent, has and continues to attend Mentor Public Schools pursuant to ORC 3313.64 (B)(1),” the lawsuit states.

During the hearing, Frenchko had also admitted to changing her status at the Avalon Country Club in Howland to “non-resident” member and, according to the lawsuit, transferred her home at 170 Kenilworth Ave. SE in Warren into a business known as MVP Solutions.

After the Sept. 8 hearing, the board of elections voted 4-0 that Frenchko was a resident of Trumbull County, a qualification for running for the commissioner’s job.

The outgoing commissioner said he believes “fraud has been committed in one or both counties.”

gvogrin@tribtoday.com

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