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Dems respond to Election Day pay disparities

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HUDSON–It was a relatively small amount of money–payments amounting to roughly $700 discovered by Board of Elections officials in December. But it created a fuss among city Democrats and prompted changes in the way the elections board pay its poll workers.

“It is so important that the Board of Elections be above political squabble and retribution. But the pattern of behavior indicates a personal and political agenda which taints the fairness of elections. It also wastes the taxpayers’ money,” said Victor Mendolia, chairman of the Hudson Democrats.

“This is about a lot more than $700,” he said recently. “Taxpayers had to pay for litigation that never should have happened, and one Democrat election commissioner quit in disgust, while the functioning of the democratic process was stymied.”

Hudson resident and former mayoral candidate Michael O’Hara described it this way: “The incident by itself is petty… but it speaks of how Hudson works politically through personalities competing for the opportunity to get things done.”

The $700 was a disparity of payments made over the course of five elections from the presidential primary in 2008 to the general election of 2009 to Democratic Party election workers. They should have been paid exactly the same as their Republican counterparts, but the Democrats received $150 less per election. The disparity was not discovered until last December.

The Board of Elections has a pay sheet outlining the pay for different election related tasks, but certain details complicate oversight. Hudson election workers receive more pay than those in outlying areas because the Hudson workers service seven election districts. Workers who are also county employees must get paid through payroll, so the amount must be translated into their hourly rate and appears on their paycheck rolled in with regular salary and overtime. Non-employee workers are paid through a voucher system. Vouchers, which can be generated by either party, were often signed with the commissioner’s name accompanied by a small extra mark indicating that someone else, usually the deputy commissioners at the time had signed for them. The deputy commissioners at the time were Geeta Cheddie(D), and Kathy Harter(R).

Mr. Mendolia, who was responsible for hiring Democratic election workers, said he discovered that the Democrats responsible for setup, closing and recanvassing election machines on election days, were paid half what their Republican counterparts received. He also found vouchers that he believes may have been tampered with, where “$150,” was changed to “$300.”

At the center of this controversy is Ms. Cheddie, the former Deputy Democratic election commissioner for 3 1/2 years, beginning in June 2005. She lost her political job at the board when Ms. Martin was appointed commissioner in 2008.

Former Democratic Election Commissioner David Cohen, who preceded  Ms. Martin, said one reason he left his post was frustration at being consistently undermined by Ms. Cheddie. In his letter of resignation he wrote that Ms. Cheddie, “while being a very capable individual, is constantly negative with any efforts of mine, withholds needed information from me and then sees me criticized for not having that information, and continues to act as a loose cannon.”

Ms. Cheddie, who won election to the position of Alderman for Hudson’s 4th Ward last fall, could not be reached by phone for this story, but she did respond by email to a general question about “pay disparity” at the Board of Elections, saying, “The reason why the Republican was paid $300 was because his duties far exceeded those performed by the Democratic custodians.” In her email she describes the duties of the GOP election worker, calling him “our ‘set-up’ person in the City of Hudson. He was someone who was hired and trained when our regular set up person (a Republican) quit.” She said this person was on call from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. on election day to trouble shoot any machine that had a problem in the City of Hudson.

Ms. Cheddie said that by contrast the Democratic polling place custodians “merely observed” the GOP worker and were paid “the customary fee of $150 per election.” According to Ms. Cheddie, the fee was established before she started working at the Board of Elections.

Ms. Martin and Mr. Mendolia say they are not conducting a criminal investigation. The board will pay $750 to be divided among the affected individuals to reimburse them, and they hope that new practices will prevent another occurrence in the future.

“We are instituting more steps to insure that things like this do not happen again. In the future forensics will be easier to look into,” said Ms. Martin said in a recent phone conversation. She has also issued a communique requesting that no vouchers be paid until commissioners personally sign off on them. “It’s the taxpayers’ money, they have a right to know and be confident that we are spending it only when necessary. It’s important we make sure people are paid what is fair and that county tax payers don’t pay a penny more than is necessary,” she said.

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