What can the Lehigh County commissioners do about the county election board?

That was the essence of questions put to commissioners Wednesday night by several advocates of a proposed clean air ordinance for Allentown. They wanted city voters to decide if that ordinance will become law, but last month the election board stopped it from going on the November ballot.

“This is a real crisis of democracy,” said county resident Al Wurth, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. “The cancellation of an election is not something I thought I would read about in this country, much less my home county.

“I’m very concerned as a citizen of Lehigh County that the county is usurping Allentown’s sovereignty.”

“I share your concerns,” said Commissioner Michael Schware, who resides in Allentown.

The process is deeply flawed, said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.

Wurth called on county commissioners to tell the election board to reconsider its decision and let city voters decide whether the air pollution ordinance should become law.

But Commissioner Scott Ott, who chaired the meeting, said the commissioners do not have the power to overrule the election board.

Ott added: “Do not interpret our desire to follow the law with a lack of sympathy for your cause.”

Commissioners have asked the county’s lawyers to look into whether election board decisions can be appealed. They also hope to get a clear explanation from the election board about why it rejected the ballot initiative.

They may even attempt to work with the election board, so a proposed ballot question never again gets rejected when it’s too late to save it.

Ott promised: “We’re going to follow up and find out how this process works. We want to do everything within the bounds of the law to find out how things properly should be done. And, if they weren’t done correctly, we have a great deal of interest in promoting it to be done correctly.”

Schware said the election board should make public whatever legal opinion it used as the basis for its decision against the Allentown ballot proposal. He said that opinion will help everyone better understand the process and what can derail it.

In response to a request by Schware, the county law department will look into whether any process exists to appeal election board decisions. When he gets an answer, he said he will share it with the public.

Schware already asked the law department whether county commissioners have any authority over the election board. He said the initial informal response he received is they do not.

“There is a need for independence, so a political body does not interfere with the election process for political reasons,” said Mazziotti. “However, the process itself is deeply flawed.”

Wurth said election board summarily dismissed the will of more than 2,000 Allentown voters who signed petitions to get the ordinance on the ballot. He said he was appealing to the commissioners “as the people I voted for and who are my elected representatives.”

Mazziotti said people should not be told they did something wrong and that their ballot initiative is being rejected when it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

Schware agreed, saying people should be advised early enough so they can do something about it, rather than being told “all your hard work is for nothing when it’s too late to cure it.”

Mazziotti said the county commissioners can’t tell the election board what to do, but can work with that board to improve the process.

The election board is an independent body created by state law, explained Lehigh County Executive Matthew Croslis, who is one of three members of that board.

Croslis told the commissioners “you can’t overturn what the board did, you can’t tell the board what to do; they are independent of the commissioners.”

He explained the election board’s duties include determining whether or not proposals are proper to be on a ballot. He added: “This was not an appropriate measure to put on the ballot.”

DEP killed the ballot initiative?

“Why was this petition turned down by the election board?” asked Commissioner Percy Dougherty. “Was there a specific part of state law with which this conflicted?”