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Election review committee expected to vote on 'quality control' audit
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Washington County’s election review committee is expected to vote tonight on whether to recommend that the county perform a “quality control audit” of its elections process.

The meeting was requested last week by county commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan, who asked the committee to discuss the matter and send a recommendation to the commissioners for review, according to an email sent Friday to its members.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the first-floor conference room in Courthouse Square at 100 W. Beau St., Washington, and is open to the public.

The committee’s meeting was requested last Friday, one day after numerous people from the online group “Audit the Vote” attended the commissioners’ July 15 meeting to demand the county perform a “forensic audit” on the 2020 general election and allow a third-party company to inspect the county’s electronic voting machines.

It was unclear what the scope of any potential audit recommendations would be from the committee, but it was unlikely to include an examination of the voting machines, according to Dave Ball, who chairs the election review panel and also is the Washington County Republican Party’s chairman. He thinks the most likely recommendation will be to conduct a “quality control audit” on the county’s elections process to see what, if any, improvements can be made.

“It’s not an ‘overturn the vote’ audit. It’s a look at what we’ve been doing. And there’s a lot of emotion in between,” Ball said. “It tells us if the measures we’ve taken are effective or not.”

The election review committee, which was formed in early 2020, has been meeting periodically to discuss how to improve the county’s elections process and has provided regular reports on their progress to the commissioners.

Elections officials have previously said that if an outside party has access to the voting machines, the state Department of State would likely decertify them because they were outside their “chain of custody,” forcing the county to purchase new machines. The state announced Tuesday that it was decertifying the voting machines in Fulton County after officials there allowed technology contractor Wake TSI to access the equipment in February.

Washington County spent $2.8 million when it purchased its new electronic voting machines and equipment in 2019.

“I don’t think there is anyone (on the committee) of the mindset to decertify the voting machines. We’ve got $3 million in equipment,” Ball said.

“I also don’t see any reason to do it,” Ball added about examining the machines and risking decertification. “What questions are you going to answer with it? The ‘Audit The Vote’ people haven’t answered that.”

The three county commissioners each selected three members to the 11-member committee, which also includes Ball and Washington County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Christina Proctor. Proctor, who serves as the election review committee’s vice chair, said Wednesday that she did not think they would recommend a “forensic audit,” but she was unsure what decision could be made at the meeting.

Ball said he called today’s meeting after speaking to Irey Vaughan last week.

“How it will go, no one knows,” Ball said.

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Smoke from wildfires impacting air quality in region
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Smoke from wildfires in northern and western Canada has drifted thousands of miles east, resulting in hazy skies earlier this week and forcing the state Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday to issue an air quality alert in Washington, Fayette, Allegheny, and four other surrounding counties.

The Code Orange Air Quality Action Day was issued in 13 other counties across the state.

A news release from the DEP said light winds that carried smoke from the fires likely contributed to “daily average concentrations of fine particulate matter in the Code Orange range.”

A Code Orange alert means sensitive groups – such as people with asthma, heart disease or lung disease – may be exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution in the air.

A cold front moved in Wednesday and will clear out smoke from the area, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service said.

However, that reprieve is likely to end Thursday night, as wind shifts are forecast to bring more smoke and particulates into the region.

“We’ll see a temporary break from that haziness, but there will be an increase in smoke and haze coming in later (Thursday) and Friday, and it will be hazy again this weekend,” said Accuweather meteorologist Paul Walker.

In addition to causing hazy skies, the dense smoke in the atmosphere has resulted in the sun appearing bright orange-red at sunrise and sunset.

“The sunrise, especially, looked like a ball of fire,” said Walker.

Last year, multiple large wildfires burned in western states and Canada, which, like this week, impacted air quality thousands of miles away.

The phenomenon is unlikely to end anytime soon, Walker said.

A historic drought and record-setting heat early in the summer are contributing to a dangerous fire season.

“As long as it remains dry, and the Northwest continues to be in drought conditions, we’ll continue to have fires and we’ll have continued episodes of smoke and haze,” he said.

In the U.S., there are currently 78 wildfires burning – including 61 large, uncontained fires – in 13 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Canada, there are 297 active fires, according to the British Columbia Wildfire Service.

Wildfire smoke clouds sky, hurts air quality on East Coast

Associated Press

A thick haze hangs over Manhattan Tuesday in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that’s currently the largest in the United States, are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high.

Commissioners delay vote on government study ballot referendum
  • Updated

Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect the correct time for the July 29 special meeting as 9 a.m.

The Washington County commissioners are delaying their special meeting planned for Friday to consider approval of a ballot referendum that could create an 11-member panel to study the county’s form of government.

The meeting to approve the ordinance that would allow voters to decide this fall on whether to implement the governmental study commission will now be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, July 29, in the commissioners’ first-floor conference room in Courthouse Square.

The delay comes after concerns were raised that the special meeting originally planned for Friday morning would be held in a virtual setting that would not allow the public to adequately address the commissioners before they vote on the ordinance.

“We’re getting a lot of calls and emails in the office, one side or the other,” commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said Wednesday after announcing the date change. “We just want to make sure people have the opportunity to address us because this is a topic – since it was announced (last week) – people have strong opinions of.”

The meeting was originally supposed to be held in a virtual setting and streamed on social media because Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Larry Maggi planned to be out of town Friday. County officials had asked the public to email or mail their comments to Chief Clerk Cindy Griffin ahead of the meeting.

But Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said that format could be on shaky ground with the state’s Sunshine Act regarding open government because it would not give the public the ability to physically attend the meeting and address elected officials.

“I think that misses a lot with the dynamic with the public and (to hear from) their constituents at a public meeting in real time,” Melewsky said. “Virtual meetings are not the same as sharing the same space with their constituents.”

Melewsky said there could be “significant issues” with voting on such a substantial issue in a virtual setting, noting that any member of the public is permitted to file a Sunshine Law violation with the state. She added that Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration order that allowed government agencies to hold meetings through video conferencing has expired, making it more difficult to justify not having in-person meetings.

“Strong public policy issues should not be handled in a virtual-only session,” Melewsky said.

Irey Vaughan acknowledged that it was important to allow the public to comment on the topic, necessitating the meeting to be pushed back to next week.

She said that a government study committee isn’t assured even if the commissioners approve the ordinance next week. The ordinance merely places the question on the ballot for the off-year general election on Nov. 2, giving voters the opportunity to approve it and select 11 members to sit on the board, or block its formation.

If approved, the committee would meet for about nine months and then make recommendations that would be placed on the ballot during a future election for voters to either approve or reject. The committee could also recommend no changes to the county’s government structure.

Irey Vaughan said some people they’ve heard from erroneously think the ordinance will automatically create the committee.

“From emails and messages we’ve received, I believe misinformation has been spread,” Irey Vaughan said about the committee’s powers. “People are saying that don’t want us passing an ordinance to form the study commission. There’s some confusion.”

The commissioners must approve the ordinance before Aug. 3 so it can be sent to the county elections office to be placed on the ballot, elections director Melanie Ostrander said Wednesday.

Irey Vaughan said the commissioners would likely hold “informational meetings” over the next few months to educate the public on the role of the study committee. But she added that the decision ultimately will be up to the voters.

“I just believe allowing voters an opportunity to decide to look at this is the right decision,” she said.

Irey Vaughan previously said she supported the commission because of concerns about the operation of several row offices in the Washington County Courthouse. Maggi also indicated he agreed with the formation of a commission, while Commissioner Nick Sherman said he was “apprehensive” about the process.