County may ask for change in supervison of elections supervisor

BY RAY LIGHTNER STAFF WRITER RAY@GRIFFINDAILYNEWS.COM
Jan 24, 2018
The Spalding County Board of Commissioners may ask for local legislation to change and clarify the supervision of the elections supervisor.

At Monday’s workshop meeting, the commissioners brought up the matter as it had come up in a series of emails among the commissioners on Sunday. County Commissioner Don Hawbaker asked for the change in an email to fellow commissioners, the two local state House members, related county staff and attorneys.

According to emails, provided following an open records request, Hawbaker and Commissioner Gwen Flowers-Taylor went back and forth on the matter. At Monday’s meeting, the board added the matter to the agenda, discussed it briefly and decided to table it until the Feb. 5 county commission meeting, by a unanimous vote.

They will also seek input from the Board of Elections, which is not scheduled to meet again until after the Feb. 5 meeting, “but they could have a called meeting,” County Manager William Wilson Jr. explained. He said they would be notified of the matter being on the agenda of the Feb. 5 meeting.

The Board of Elections and the position of elections supervisor were created by local legislation in the General Assembly. Following questions about the supervision and discipline of Elections Supervisor Marcia Ridley, after three employees and Board of Elections Chairman Helen Grayson resigned over management and working conditions under Ridley in November, Wilson requested an opinion from legislative counsel, based on the legislation as to the supervision and discipline of the elections supervisor.

The opinion was it was the Board of Elections, not the county manager, but there were some areas where it was not entirely clear. In that opinion, the county was also asked if it wanted to make changes to clarify it.

Examples from other counties were included and the opinion and examples were sent to the county commissioners on Dec. 15 by Wilson, who asked if the board wanted to make any changes. There had been no response from the commissioners until Sunday, when Hawbaker sent the following email to fellow commissioners, the two local state House members, related county staff and attorneys:

“The legislative session is moving along and we need to address the issue of who the election supervisor answers and reports to with amendment of our enabling legislation per the example provided below,” Hawbaker said, referring to the examples provided by legislative counsel.

“I would ask that Mr. Fortune draft a suggested amendment. I strongly prefer that the election supervisor answer to the county manager, not the politically-inclined members of the Board of Elections and Registrations. This needs to be done this session,” Hawbaker said, in the email.

Flowers-Taylor responded to Hawbaker, saying “that legislation is state legislation. I don’t understand this desire of yours Don. When I tried to share with you the situation at that office. You didn’t want to know. Now you want to change a system that is broken.”

Flowers-Taylor claimed that in her response, “our county manager was in the middle of, and responsible for a lot of that drama” referring to the three employees and the Board of Elections chairman resigning following the last election. ”I can easily provide you with the evidence associated with this incidences,” Flowers-Taylor told Hawbaker. “So, please share with me why this change is being requested.”

Hawbaker replied, “Sure, I’ll be glad to explain. I’ve had enough management experience — including the Executive Management Committee of 100+ attorney firms to small law firms, to units of the federal government and in volunteer organizations — to know one thing: If a manager is so unpopular and incapable of developing sufficient respect, rapport and loyalty that all staff quit their jobs on the same day due to working conditions they all attribute to the manager, then it’s the manager’s fault. Period. I don’t need to know the ‘he said-she said’ and ‘who shot John’ detail to know that a change at that position should be made.

A manager, Hawbaker said, “doesn’t have to be her subordinate’s friend but does need to have the personal skills to get along with at least one person in the office she heads.”

His opinion, he explained, “is also informed by personal experience. As a result of being the sole person in that office, our election supervisor has been unable – or just ignored — a request for information that I made in mid-November about T-SPLOST voting. And I later sent a reminder. It’s the only information or thing I’ve ever asked of her, and no response in more than 60 days. Would that give you confidence in the employee/manager in that position?”

Hawbaker said, “there is now reason to be seriously concerned with the way our upcoming special election and May elections will be handled since it appears that many poll workers no longer work for our election supervisor. What has been done to recruit, replace and train the poll workers who have quit since November? The county should be prepared to ask the state to oversee and administer the logistics of all elections for the foreseeable future.”

In any event, he added, “in my view no employee on the county payroll should be accountable only to an unelected committee or board of citizens. Every employee should be subject to adverse employment action, including termination, by the county manager if warranted and carried out per our Personnel Ordinance and the law.”

He also cited the opinion by Legislative Counsel, which “indicates ambiguity as to whom, under the enabling legislation, the Election Supervisor is ultimately accountable, I think we should ask our state representatives and state senator to offer legislation which amends and removes any doubt that the county’s election supervisor — whoever he or she may be — answers to the county manager. So, I renew my request that our county attorney offer draft legislation for our consideration and possible request of our state house and senate representatives.”

Flowers-Taylor disagreed, saying “I don’t share your sentiments and still believe that this situation has ‘good ole boy’ all over it, and the fact that you don’t know most of the details surrounding that situation, let’s me know that your choice is based on just what you said a summation of all true facts. I leave it at that and say to you that this is going to drive a wedge between the black community and that office.”

She also emphasized, typing in all caps, “I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT SUPPORT THE COUNTY MGR TO OVERSEE THAT POSITION.”

Flowers-Taylor continued, warning “any of our state delegation that think this is a good idea, should be looking for how this action will affect their elections as well. I can promise you, that this is gonna blow up ugly, the same way and Rita and I intimated that we felt that we didn’t have enough time to do a successful TSPLOST that ended up being a main reason that it failed.”

And she concluded, “not trying to get your ire up but just trying to keep it real. You know I totally respect your opinion and often I defer to it….but…This time….I just can’t.”

Hawbaker replied, “Gwen, I absolutely respect your opinion. I think the larger problem here is the structural setup, far more so than the person in the position or what even led to asking for the clarifying legal opinion. Take my little issue with our Election Supervisor and not getting the info I requested — which it occurs to me I’ll just address via an Open Records Act request tomorrow. (I’ve also made a request for unrelated property-tax information from our Chief Appraiser and our Tax Commissioner and not received a full or timely response, so I’ll send them an ORA request, too.)”

Hawbaker said, “If she ignores or flat-out tells me to get lost, am I — are you or any of us — really supposed to go to an unelected citizen’s board made up of political-party appointees to ask for supervision and compliance, to say nothing of basic courtesy and respect? Why should I expect them to respond differently? Who is going to hold them accountable? Apparently, no one.”

And he continued: “We answer to the voters of this county, William answers to us, and all employees, except apparently the person in this one position, answer ultimately to William. I can’t think of another county employee that is in a more politically sensitive position. Especially for that reason, the Election Supervisor should answer to the county manager whoever that may be. WW won’t be county manager forever, but the structure will be that way unless our local delegation helps us change it.”

He explained, “I brought this topic up again at this time because with the General Assembly in session, we can ask our local delegation to take steps to fix it now rather than in a subsequent years. But if no one else sees a problem here, I guess I won’t push it.”