The Commissioners Court would have to agree to create the position, but the 5-member election commission would appoint who fills it, said County Judge Dean Fowler, presiding officer of both the commission and the Commissioners Court. Besides Fowler, the commission consists of County Clerk Barbara Winchester, County Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack, county Republican Party Chairman Cynthia Ridgeway, and county Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr.
At Tuesday’s posted meeting of the election commission, held in the Upshur County Courtroom, the discussion about naming an administrator came after Mrs. Winchester advised the two party chairmen that the county would not contract with the parties to handle the March 4 primary elections. She said that means Mrs. Ridgeway and Miles must contract with Hart InterCivic, which sold the county its election machinery.
Mrs. Winchester, who was appointed County Clerk a few months ago when Brandy Lee resigned that post to become County Auditor, said she was declining to contract with the parties because of financial reasons, and because her office’s workers are “just stretched—period.” However, her office is still responsible for handling early voting, mail-in ballots and military ballots.
The parties will be responsible for all other arrangements for the primary elections, including printing their ballots, Mrs. Winchester said. In addition, she said the county lacks enough voting machines for separate primaries, and she suggested the parties hold a joint primary, meaning fewer election workers because each polling place would have only one table of election judges instead of two.
Asked by The Mirror how much money the county would save by not contracting with the parties, Mrs. Winchester replied, “I can’t tell you.”
But as far as creating a new office to handle elections, Fowler told the commission meeting, which was attended by two of the four County Commissioners, that Commissioners Court would have a “problem. . .if we have to come up with $80,000 or $100,000 for an Election Administrator.”
He said the cost could be reduced to $20,000 by cutting the county budget elsewhere.
When Miles asked about the possibility of increasing a Deputy County Clerk’s salary to compensate for handling elections, Mrs. Winchester said only one deputy in her office (Greg Dodson) could do it, and “he’s stressed.”
Fowler said Dodson had told Mrs. Winchester that “if I have to handle another election, I will not be working here,” and the judge said Dodson also would not accept the post of Election Administrator no matter what it paid.
Mrs. Lee, who was County Clerk when Dodson handled some elections, told the commission that the county had to pay him compensatory time, and that dealing with elections “takes him away from other things that need to be done.”
Mrs. Ridgeway, who praised Dodson for doing more than required in handling elections and said “I respect his opinion and experience,” also said he nonetheless lacked certain “legal authority” and “has the liability without the protection” of such authority.
Added Mrs. Lee, “He is afraid that one of these days, something’s going to happen.” For example, she said, Camp County had left a candidate’s name off a ballot in a recent election, and a mishap here is “highly likely to occur one of these days with the load that’s on him.”
Mrs. Ridgeway said Election Administrator is not an elective office, which “removes some of the stress of the job.”
She also estimated that her party’s continually contracting with Hart would cost an estimated $15,000 per election, so “two elections is a whole year’s salary for one person.” If a runoff election is required, she said, that would cost her party more than hiring an administrator.
Auditor Lee said appointing an administrator would remove all election-related responsibilities from the County Clerk’s Office, and Tax Assessor-Collector Laminack, whose office handles voter registration, said having an administrator would mean “I would not have anything to do” with voting.
Mrs. Lee said removing the election-related duties from those two offices “would be one advantage” since they are “like a hot line” with phone calls at election time.
Mrs. Laminack pledged that if Dodson and the deputy in her office who handles voter registration, Pam Dean, were put in the potential Election Administrator’s office, she would not ask for a replacement for Mrs. Dean. However, since Mrs. Dean also performs some other duties, not replacing her might mean closing the Tax Assessor’s branch office in Gladewater since the tax office would no longer have a “floating” worker, Mrs. Laminack said.
Because her office registers voters, she said, her staff is at work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at election time, and her workers receive overtime pay. In addition, she said, elections are held in the middle of the season when her office handles tax matters, and having to handle elections interferes with the office’s other duties “big-time,” as “I just cannot do everything.”
The Tax Assessor-Collector also indicated that people complain about an elected official handling voting registration. And, she said, a survey of other counties which have Election Administrators showed such an employee would not earn that much more than Upshur County is now spending.
Fowler said that in its 2011 budget, adjoining Wood County pays its administrator $39,810 yearly while Anderson County pays its $30,720. Pct. 2 County Comm. Cole Hefner, who along with Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka attended Tuesday’s meeting, said Titus County also has such a position, but “I don’t have a clue what they pay.”
Fowler said that despite Dodson’s decision not to work elections again, “our (the county’s) elections are not in jeopardy. There are people we can contract with” to handle them. Fowler said the question is what is most efficient--having an Election Administrator, or contracting out election work, and that he needed more information.
“Our County Clerk and our Tax Assessor will go on the record that they support” having an administrator, Fowler said.
“We definitely support an E.A.,” Miles said.
Added Mrs. Ridgeway, “I will qualify my support for an Election Administrator. . . It appears to me to be the best option that would secure the integrity of the ballot.”
She asked Fowler whether it would be appropriate for her and Miles to ask the commissioners for an administrator, or whether the commission should do that. Fowler suggested she and Miles do so.
When the judge added that “I just don’t see how” the court could create the position before the March 4 primaries, County Clerk Winchester pointed out that once the post is created, it need not be filled or funded for 12 months.
The commission took no vote on whether to recommend the Commissioners Court create the position, as Fowler pointed out that the commission’s meeting agenda had listed the matter only for discussion rather than action.
The commission also discussed early voting for the March 4 primaries. Mrs. Winchester said she had discussed confining it to the County Courthouse, but Fowler replied, “I bet you’re going to have a hard time convincing the Commissioners Court (to approve that, as it has the power to do). Fowler said commissioners “like (having early) voting (out) in their own precincts” in primary elections.
He also said the Election Commission would probably not meet again before the March primaries, and that he believed Mrs. Winchester and Mrs. Laminack had wanted Tuesday’s meeting “so we’re all on the same page.