Montco commissioners dismiss county election chief

Joseph R. Passarella led Voter Services since 1994.
Joseph R. Passarella led Voter Services since 1994.
Posted: April 20, 2013

The Montgomery County commissioners ousted elections chief Joseph R. Passarella with little explanation Wednesday, one month before a primary election.

For more than a decade, Democrats have criticized Passarella's office as ineffectual - a perception that apparently led to his ouster this week.

"This is part of an ongoing effort to look at every aspect of county government and make sure that we have the best leadership in those posts and that they're operating as effectively and efficiently as possible," said Chairman Josh Shapiro, who leads the county's first Democratic administration in more than 150 years.

Passarella, who had directed Voter Services since 1994 and was paid $71,983 a year, would not comment on his firing.

The Montgomery County GOP released a scathing statement in which Chairman Robert J. Kerns called the Democratic commissioners "wannabe Philadelphia-style political bosses."

"Time and again, Shapiro and [Vice Chairman Leslie S.] Richards have replaced dedicated, conscientious, longtime Montgomery County employees with Philadelphians," Kerns said, "and recycled political hacks from the Rendell administration."

The commissioners denied that the move was politically motivated. Republican Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., who is exploring a run for governor, said he was "aware that the conversation was taking place" and supported it.

Under the previous county administration, Passarella was reprimanded for failing to inform the Election Board of an error that led to inflated voter rolls.

The problem began in 2008, when the presidential election brought a surge of registrations. A low-level staffer started approving new registrations that came through the state's "Motor Voter" system - which was supposed to be used only to update existing voters.

Passarella was slow to learn of the mistake, and then kept it quiet until a state audit went public. He was suspended without pay for two days, and his assistant, Patricia Allen, was suspended for one day.

An announcement for the director position was posted Thursday afternoon on the county website. County archivist and print-shop manager Michael Paston will serve as interim director, with the assistance of county Chief Operating Officer Lauren Lambrugo and Assistant Solicitor David Robinson. A new hire will not come before May 2, when the salary board meets.

County spokesman Frank Custer said that preparations for the May 21 primary were on track and that "we are confident that the primary will be handled with efficiency and integrity."

Over Passarella's tenure, the county shifted from a Republican to a Democratic majority. In his first year, he was caught in a tug-of-war between the state and federal governments over purging voter rolls and handled a bumpy transition from paper to electronic ballots. Last year, he cooperated with the newly elected Democratic administration to distribute a county voter ID.


Contact Jessica Parks

at 610-313-8117 or jparks@philly.com, or

follow on Twitter @JS_Parks.

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