'Political spitting match' after firing in Montco

Joseph R. Passarella led Voter Services since 1994.
Joseph R. Passarella led Voter Services since 1994.
Posted: April 24, 2013

The ouster of Joe Passarella as Montgomery County Voter Services director has devolved into what one county official called "a political spitting match."

Commissioners fired Passarella last week, after 18 years on the job, and installed a team of administration allies to oversee the office until a permanent replacement was found.

County GOP Chairman Robert J. Kerns immediately cried foul, calling the move politically motivated and extolling Passarella's "record of managing elections without so much as a single glitch."

County Communications Director Frank Custer rejected Kerns' criticism. "The action taken today was not political in any way," he said in a statement, noting that Republican Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. supported the firing and that the bipartisan Salary Board "ratified the action."

County Controller and Salary Board member Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican, took issue with Custer's characterization of the vote and put out a statement of his own:

"At the time of the April 18 Salary Board vote, Mr. Passarella had already been irrevocably forced from his post," Greenleaf wrote. "To falsely suggest that I 'ratified' that personnel decision, and to do so simply to gain advantage in a political spitting match, is inappropriate and risks souring the cordial atmosphere in which the county has operated the past fifteen months."

Indeed, the Salary Board has no authority over hiring decisions, but only over compensation - a fact Custer conceded Monday.

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic chairman of the county commissioners, said the firing had no partisan connotation until Republicans injected one.

"I'm not going to engage with Bob Kerns. He is absolutely irrelevant," Shapiro said Monday. "I'm focused on doing a good job for our constituents."

He called reports that the position had been promised to a Democratic ally "absolutely false."

He said Michael Paston, the current county archivist and print shop manager, was selected for his management skills to oversee day-to-day operations only until the job was filled. Paston will retain his current salary, $53,195, and be assisted by county Chief Operating Officer Lauren Lambrugo and Assistant Solicitor David Robinson.

The position is advertised on the county website at $65,000 to $75,000 a year. Requirements include a bachelor's degree, four years' management experience, and "mastery of laws covering voter registration and elections."

Paston, a lawyer and former Upper Dublin school board member, ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2006 and for a judicial seat in 2011.

John Keleman, acting executive director of the Montgomery County GOP, said the staffing change should have been handled more carefully, given the intricate and sensitive nature of the Voter Services office.

"You have what is the most ethically charged office in county government, an office that before all others has to do things fairly, equitably. There can't even be the appearance of impropriety," Keleman said.

"We're hopeful," he added, "that Mike Paston will direct the office in a manner consistent with the reputation for fairness and impartiality it earned under the leadership of Joe Passarella."

Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117

or jparks@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JS_Parks.

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