Robert J. “Bob” Lawless was certified councilman-elect for Ocean View’s District 4 seat at the Friday, April 3, meeting of the town’s Board of Supervisors of Elections. Because the number of qualified candidates was equal to the number of seats up for election – just one seat this year – after the withdrawal of candidate Jerry Mueller two weeks ago, there will be not be an election held in Ocean View this year.
On Wednesday night, April 1, the same board heard and dismissed a complaint from Councilman Perry J. Mitchell, who argued that Lawless had improperly garnered support from local Republicans in his campaign for the non-partisan Ocean View District 4 council seat. Lawless was found not to have violated the town’s or state’s election laws and was left as the only candidate for the seat, after Mueller’s withdrawal the prior week subsequent to his arrest on drug charges.
Barring any formal objections being made in the seven-day grace period mandated by state law, Lawless will be announced as the new council member by the town manager at the April 14 town council meeting.
Mayor Gordon Wood said he is eager to get back to the business at hand for the council.
“With this election campaign, such as it was, we have moved on, and I expect Ocean View business to be effective but boring.”
Mitchell, who brought the complaint against Lawless, said he was in no way trying to deny Lawless his First Amendment rights and conceded at the hearing that it was not Lawless’ campaign brochure or other written materials with which he took issue – rather, his actions.
“The brochure is only a minute part,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “Let’s have a level playing field.”
Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader asked Mitchell at the April 1 hearing of his complaint if all those issues had not been rendered moot since Mueller dropped out of the race, leaving Lawless as the lone candidate.
“No,” answered Mitchell. “The precedent has been set. If he’s allowed to do this, I don’t think it has been mooted.”
Specific arguments Mitchell bought up at the hearing included sections of the town charter, which states that “All municipal elections in the town of Ocean View shall be conducted in a non-partisan basis and no ballot shall carry any party affiliation.”
He argued that Lawless’ brochure stating his affiliation as the head of the 38th District Republican Committee and the references to his campaign on the Sussex County Republican Women’s Web site – although protected by free speech on both sides – were a small part of a bigger, partisan agenda.
Mitchell argued that having information on the SCRW Web site about Lawless’ meet-and-greet (incorrectly reported as being “hosted” by the club) was a way to attract volunteers and equivalent to accepting in-kind donations.
When asked by Schrader if he had told any of the women to put that information on the Web site, or, subsequently, to take it down, Lawless said he had not. “I hadn’t asked them to do anything,” he emphasized. “Why would I ask them to stop?”
When asked about other activities he had done that would assure the people of Ocean View he was, in fact, avoiding a partisan election environment, Lawless answered that he “was knocking on many doors, and most of the people working with me, I don’t even know their party affiliation.”
Residents Baptist Damiano and Vicki York – both Democrats – both testified that they had worked on Lawless’ campaign and supported him because he was the best candidate for Ocean View.
“For me to say I am standing up here supporting a Republican, it’s tough,” said York. “But since it is a non-partisan race, I felt I chose the best candidate in Bob Lawless – even though he is a Republican,” she said to laughter.
Mitchell was adamant in saying he was a proponent of free speech and said he was, in fact, more discouraged at the precedent that was being set for future town elections.
“This sets a dangerous precedent,” he said Wednesday. “My argument to the Board was based on Lawless’ conduct, not speech. I made it very clear that his words on his brochure and the GOP Web site are protected speech. My argument was about the in-kind services he received from the Republicans,” he added this week.
“Ironically, the Board’s decision did not mention free speech but cited court cases such as the school board case (Hawkins v. Butler – Truesdale) in D.C., which provided for non-partisan elections but that partisan acts by a partisan candidate did not violate a non-partisan election. Obviously, I was not aware of the cases cited. Had I been, I would have dropped the complaint.”
Attorney John Brady, representing Lawless, stated at the hearing that the same town charter Section 2.510 that Mitchell had cited in his argument goes on to describe the duties of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, which includes certifying whether a candidate is eligible and how to conduct business on election day, but, he said, it stopped short of make specific rules about pre-election conduct.
“Now, we have a complaint about conduct, which, unfortunately, is not your jurisdiction,” he argued.
Schrader disagreed and said he understood the charter to read that the board did in fact have jurisdiction. Regardless, Brady and Lawless prevailed with the board, as Lawless was found not to have violated either state election law or the town charter.
“The good common sense of the people of Ocean View prevailed,” said Lawless on Friday of the board’s decision. “It was a testament to the calm demeanor of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and they made a judgment. I’m pleased. I’d also like to thank John Brady for his representation. It was a wonderful task.”
“It is unfortunate that we went through this challenge, which was a significant waste of time and money,” added Mayor Gordon Wood. “I look forward to working with Bob Lawless, who has demonstrated that he is a gentleman in every way.”