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Brookfield trustee candidate will appear on ballot after court ruling

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the Trumbull County Board of Elections exceeded its authority when it refused to certify the candidacy of a Brookfield man wanting to run for trustee because of a counting error on one of his nominating petitions.

The court’s 6-1 decision Tuesday will result in the board putting Mark Ferrara of Taylor Street on the ballot as a Brookfield trustee candidate.

“I am so glad I was heard,” Ferrara said. “The work begins now (to get elected). It’s a good day to be an Ohioan. We’ve got to hit the pavement and work hard. I’m excited to do that.”

The board of elections voted 4-0 on Aug. 12 to disqualify 13 potential candidates, including Ferrara.

Ferrara wasn’t certified because he submitted one petition with 17 signatures, but wrote 16 on the document. That resulted in the board not validating any signatures on that petition.

Ferrara had 16 valid signatures on another petition and needed 25 to qualify.

Had he put the correct number on the other petition, Ferrara would have been certified as 16 of the 17 signatures were valid, said Stephanie Penrose, board director.

The board has routinely disqualified candidates for years for writing the wrong number of signatures collected on petitions as it’s been grounds to not certify under Ohio Secretary of State rules based on that agency’s interpretation of a state law, she said.

As part of Ferrara’s lawsuit, he included an email from Dave Ward, director of constituent affairs for the secretary of state, that pointed to the same provision in the election official manual that said what he did automatically invalidates that petition.

“The board made the best decision it could at the time based on the secretary of state manual,” Penrose said. “We will have to rethink this in the future. If you read the secretary of state manual, it says, ‘You must reject the entire part petition.'”

Because this is a court order to review the petition and Ferrara now has more than enough signatures to qualify, he’ll automatically be included on the ballot without the board formally meeting to take action, Penrose said.

“I was very surprised by the policy,” Ferrara said. “I made a clerical error so why throw the whole sheet out? I’m glad I was heard, but I’m disappointed I had to get to this level.”

With Ferrara now a candidate, there are three people running for the two open township trustee seats on the Nov. 2 ballot in Brookfield. The others are Catherine Hodge and incumbent Daniel S. Suttles.

COURT DECISION

In its decision, written by Justice Pat DeWine, the court determined the entire petition shouldn’t be invalidated for a “minor, inadvertent mistake in recording the count of signatures on the ballot.”

It also stated: “There is nothing in the statutory text that requires a part-petition to be invalidated for such a mistake,” and the law “requires the circulator to ‘indicate’ the number of signatures, but it does not state that a petition should be invalidated if the indication is incorrect.”

In the decision, DeWine gave examples of when the court ruled in favor and against candidates for candidates in similar situations.

“The guidance provided by the secretary of state is as confusing and inconsistent as our case law,” he wrote, adding that undercounting signatures is treated differently than overcounting.

“The different treatment of undercounts and overcounts by the secretary of state, and sometimes by this court, is befuddling,” DeWine wrote. “There is absolutely no support in the statute for drawing such a distinction.”

He added: “All of this raises the questions whether deference to the secretary of state is appropriate in this instance. We hold that is it not” as it “has created unnecessary confusion in this area of the law.”

The court decided to overrule a unanimous 2005 decision to not certify John G. Bull Dog Rust running for a Toledo school board seat — though obviously it’s far too late to help Rust, an attorney who legally added Bull Dog to his legal name and died in 2013 at the age of 97, according to his obituary.

Rust lost numerous elections for Congress, judge, city council and school board over a 25-year period, according to his obituary.

Justice Jennifer Brunner, a former secretary of state, was the lone dissenter in the decision. She opposed the decision because Ferrara attested that he witnessed only 16 signatures among the 17 on the petition in question and didn’t specify which of the 16 he witnessed.

It wouldn’t matter, however, which signature he may or may not have witnessed as all but one of the 17 were deemed by the board to be valid. Even if Ferrara supposedly witnessed an invalid signature, he had 33 overall valid signatures and needed only 25 to get on the ballot.

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