Three members of the court named in the chairmen’s statement—County Judge Dean Fowler, Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner, and Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka—subsequently defended themselves against the complaint. Berka accused County GOP Chairman Cynthia Ridgeway of raising the issue partly to aid her daughter, Ronnica Ridgeway, in her current campaign for County Judge against Fowler.
In a written statement released to The Mirror, Mrs. Ridgeway and Democratic Chairman Dan Miles Jr. said the court plans to eventually reject the proposed EA, but doesn’t want to go on record as doing so now at a time when three of its members are up for election (Fowler, Hefner and Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer, who was not mentioned by name in the chairmen’s statement).
The latest discussion about hiring an Administrator began Dec. 3, when four of the County Election Commission’s five members (including the two party chairmen) expressed or implied support for it at a commission meeting.
The only one who did not was Fowler, who did not indicate how he stood. But the Commissioners Court took no action on the proposal at a Dec. 31 meeting after some court members expressed reservations about it.
The court would establish the position, but the Election Commission would hire the Administrator.
One Election Commission member, County Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack, has said that registering voters interferes with her office’s other duties, and that some persons object to elected officials handling elections.
Another commission member who favors hiring an EA, County Clerk Barbara Winchester, declined to contract with the two major parties to hold their March 4 primary elections, saying her workers were “stretched.” She also cited the cost to the county.
Also supporting the EA proposal is Judy Moore, a Gilmer ISD secretary who oversees early voting in school elections. But County Libertarian Chairman Vance Lowry and Peggy LaGrone, the only candidate seeking the Libertarian nomination for County Clerk, have expressed opposition to it.
During the Dec. 31 meeting at which the court declined to act on the EA proposal, citing various reasons ranging from the potential expense to the difficulty of firing an administrator, Mrs. Ridgeway urged the court perhaps put off action till January and “dig into this.”
But in her and Miles’s statement, they said “our current requests for bringing the question back before the court have finally been denied as of. . . February 7 by Judge Fowler, who says ‘I am not going to put the EA position back on the agenda until one of the Commissioners requests it.’”
The chairmen’s statement continued, “Despite the court’s ability to delay a proposed EA’s employment start date, Judge Fowler told each of us that in his opinion, consideration of the EA didn’t need to take place until ‘during the budgeting process,’ and that Oct. 1 would be the earliest possible hire date, even if the position was approved.”
“This makes it highly unlikely that an EA could be prepared to contract for the November general election. It seems obvious that the Court intends to reject the idea, no matter the pleas of Republicans, Democrats and other election jurisdictions, who are more familiar with what all is required to insure a pure election process.
“It has also become increasingly clear that our Court just does not want to go on record with their decision. Could it be because we are currently in an election cycle containing three of their own positions?” the statement asked.
“It is our belief that the security of the election process is a priority concern for voters of all jurisdictions or political parties,” the chairmen continued. “The decision to vote on hiring an Administrator should not be influenced by the timing of an election.”
The chairmen wrote that when they brought the proposal to the court, “two major objections were raised by Commissioners Berka (money) and Hefner (politics). Because the court was obviously unwilling, or not informed enough to take action on our request, we suggested tabling the vote until January, to allow more time for research.”
Addressing the question of the expense of creating the position, Mrs. Ridgeway and Miles said in part that “while the law limits what our respective political parties pay the county for elections, that is not the case for schools and cities. Also, historically the county may have actually undercharged these groups, and by raising those charges it may recover any potential extra expense of an Administrator, and still save them money.”
The chairmen cited recent newspaper articles saying that “by being forced to contract with a third party” instead of the county to help hold the election, “both Gilmer ISD and the City will face greatly increased costs for their election services. . . This scenario will now be repeated in every election throughout the county; costs paid with our taxes!” (Under state law, city and school elections may be canceled if no races are contested.)
The statement continued, “We respectfully appreciate the Court’s frugality with the use of our money, but clearly hiring an elections administrator would create no significant cost increase for the county. Neither do we agree that another layer of government is added by creating a position that inherently eliminates another position.
“Also, we consider the argument bogus that an administrator who must answer to ten people is as easily persuaded as one elected official who currently tabulates ballots, even for their own election,” the chairmen said.
They added, “As for difficulties in firing a bad Administrator, we suggest that the process is much quicker and easier to correct than waiting to vote out a bad official elected to a four year term!”
Replying to the statement, Fowler said, “This is my question: why didn’t the party chairs bring the request for an Election Administrator to the Commissioners Court during our budget preparation last summer, so it could have been included in our current budget? We are five months into our 12-month budget and cannot simply create and fund a new department. The correct time to discuss this matter is during our budget process.
“The fact that the party chairs are attempting to convince the public this is a critical issue, that must be decided RIGHT NOW, is nothing more than a thinly veiled political attack right in the middle of early voting,” Fowler concluded.
Said Hefner, “I do not believe it is responsible or prudent to create a new department in county government before we begin our budget process. By law, we cannot fund a new department in the middle of the budget year. Even if approved, we could not hire for, nor fund the new department until Oct. 1, 2014.
“As a conservative Republican, I do not believe the solution to a problem that does not exist is solved by creating more government. I have talked to several citizens from my precinct, and I have not found any support for a new department in our county government. Some people want to make this about politics. It’s not about politics. It’s common-sense business.,” Hefner added.
Wrote Berka, “This is not news. This subject was thoroughly discussed for over an hour during the Dec. 31 Commissioners Court meeting, and subsequently reported on (in a newspaper). . . The ‘complete’ story, as Mrs. Ridgeway calls it, can be heard on the county’s website at www.upshurcountyclerk.com. Click Commissioners Court, agendas, 2013, Dec. 31, item #6.
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Ridgeway finds it necessary to stir the pot in order to promote the people whom she endorses, most namely, her daughter. In case she hasn’t noticed, the citizens of Upshur County have begun to believe this Commissioners Court does take care of business and have no stomach for things the way they used to be,” Berka concluded.