‘Good luck with your elections’: Interim registrar fired in Buckingham

Published 1:08 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

DILLWYN – For the second time since March, Buckingham County has a new registrar. By a 2-0 vote on Tuesday, May 9, the county’s electoral board terminated interim registrar Luis Gutierrez. His deputy registrar, Ginger Chiesa, will step in and serve until the end of this term, which is over as of June 30. 

“I offered Mr. Gutierrez an opportunity to resign his position as the interim registrar,” Buckingham County Electoral Board member Karen Cerwinski said. “My other plan B was that he would be terminated today. He’s terminated because of some falsification on his original application regarding jobs.”

Gutierrez denied the claim, saying after the closed session that Cerwinski knew everything about where he had worked previously. He refused to resign because he saw that as an admission of guilt and Gutierrez said he did nothing wrong. He was the first to return after the closed session and, speaking to the crowd, told them his time was up. 

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“Good luck with your elections this year, I wish you well,” Gutierrez said. “I have been terminated. I’m sorry I didn’t fit the mold. I’m not in the hunting club or any of that. I’m sorry if I disappointed or offended you in any way.” 

After Gutierrez left, Cerwinski told the crowd it’s time to move forward. 

“I would like to reassure the citizens of Buckingham that the registrar’s office will still be open and I have a deputy registrar here right now that is taking on the responsibility of making sure it’s open,” Cerwinski said. “Everything’s safe and secure and we will go forward from here.” 

The firing of Gutierrez, who had been on the job 19 days, is the latest in several months of turnover involving both the electoral board and registrar. Chiesa becomes Buckingham’s third registrar this year, working for an electoral board that doesn’t have any of the same members who started things off in the year’s first meeting. 

Concerns beyond interim registrar  

The night before Tuesday’s vote, several residents spoke out about their concerns during the Buckingham Board of Supervisors meeting. They asked supervisors to step in, to consider withholding electoral board funding or doing anything to get things back on track. 

“The electoral board is dysfunctional,” said Cheryl White. She serves as the president of the Buckingham County branch of the NAACP. “Three of the board members appointed since January have resigned. How do we plan to move forward if our leadership is dysfunctional? Buckingham County’s registrar’s office has lost its whole electoral staff. Who is there to run our election? Will we be ready for a fair election in November, when we have more than 20 persons on the ballot?” 

White’s concerns were echoed by several other speakers. Some were the same The Herald has heard over the last few months. Buckingham residents have questions about if the elections office is always open, if voter registration forms are being processed and similar issues. 

Others questioned the electoral board’s hiring process in searching for a permanent registrar. Previous registrar Lindsey Taylor stepped down in March. Taylor had been informed by the electoral board in a Friday, March 10 meeting they wouldn’t be keeping her for another term once her current one expired June 30. She stepped down soon after that meeting. 

Dillwyn town council member Janel Venable said she applied to the open registrar’s position when it first went up in April. However, she heard nothing, no confirmation that her application was even received. 

“The gross negligence in the hiring process of Buckingham County employees is deeply concerning,” Venable said. “The process does not appear to be streamlined or outsider friendly.” 

Supervisors were informed of two other women who also weren’t notified if their applications were received. 

In addition, residents wanted to know when the electoral board might get back to a full three-person group, rather than a constantly shifting number. 

Who’s actually on the board right now?

Currently, there are two members serving on the Buckingham County Electoral Board, Dr. Karen Cerwinski and Woody Hanes. Cerwinski replaced previous Electoral Board Vice Chair Andrew Marchetti, who resigned in March. Hanes fills the seat left by Gail Braxton, who also stepped down in March. The third seat on the board is vacant, previously held by Sandy Banks-Bertwell, who stepped down in April. 

Now there are rules to follow in order to fill a seat on the electoral board. Virginia Code Section 24.2-106 says “in the appointment of the electoral board, representation shall be given to each of the two political parties having the highest and next highest number of votes in the Commonwealth for Governor at the last preceding gubernatorial election. Two electoral board members shall be of the political party that cast the highest number of votes for Governor at that election.” 

In this case, that means a Republican majority. It also means the third member must be a Democrat. As for who chooses those replacements, the Virginia Code is pretty clear on that too. The respective political parties submit a list of at least three choices to the “chief judge of the judicial circuit for the county.” Then the judge makes a final selection based on those options. Cerwinski is a Republican and Hanes is a Democrat. That means the third member must be a Republican. 

Buckingham County Republican Party Chair Ramona Christian said she expects to turn over a list of names for consideration to the court by the end of this week.