Upshur County Commissioners Court voted 3-1 Monday to establish the new office of county elections administrator, a move which may result in closing the Gladewater branch of the county tax assessor-collector’s office.
The court approved creating the EA office after hearing comments from several members of the public, most of whom expressed support for County Clerk Terri Ross’ Aug. 14 proposal to establish the post, thus removing responsibility for elections from her office.
She did not attend Monday’s meeting since she was at a school on elections.
At the Aug. 14 court meeting where Ross broached the proposal, which the court first considered at least seven years ago, county Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack said establishing the EA office would result in her closing the Gladewater branch if an employee in her office went to work in the new EA office.
The tax assessor’s office not only collects taxes, but registers vehicles and voters. Closing its Gladewater substation would not result in closing Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch’s office in that city.
Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka was the only court member to vote against creating the office, which will have a $40,000 salary. He has fought for retaining the Gladewater substation, which is in his precinct.
Berka also objected during Monday’s meeting that the county had no reserves, needed to build them, and needed to spend money on election equipment.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer made the motion to approve the position after initially indicating he opposed doing so. Commissioners Paula Gentry and Don Gross voted for it.
Under the motion, the $24,000, which is in the county elections budget, will be supplemented with $16,000 from the general fund to pay the EA salary. Meantime, the motion also provided for removing Deputy Voter Registrar Pam Dean (who mans the Gladewater office) and her salary of about $24,000 away from the tax office, and moving it to the EA office.
Dean’s husband, Haskell Dean, is running against Berka for the Republican nomination for commissioner in 2016.
During a break in Monday’s lengthy meeting, Spencer said Hart Intercivic would charge the county $15,000 to $16,000 to handle election machinery, which can now be done in-house instead. He said he “wasn’t against an EA,” but the arrangement some advocates were talking about would have cost $50,000 and that he opposed spending more than $40,000.
Spencer said he hoped the county could recoup the costs of the new position by contracting with other taxing entities to hold their elections.
His comments before he made his motion had seemed so negative about having an EA that County Judge Dean Fowler told the court “(I) thought I was going to have to break the tie (vote.) Caught me off-guard.”
Fowler recently said that if forced to choose between keeping the Gladewater branch open and approving the EA, he would not support the new post, but that he thought the budget could support both. During a break in Monday’s meeting, he said he hoped the substation will stay open, but that it is strictly up to Laminack.
Gilmer attorney Ronnica Ridgeway, whose mother, Upshur County Republican Party Chairman Cynthia Ridgeway, also spoke in favor of having an EA, told the court on Monday that Chapter 19 of the Texas Election Code allows governmental reimbursement to the county for voter registration and its costs.
County Auditor Brandy Lee said the county is already receiving such funding. Ronnica Ridgeway then said, “Those funds could help defray “the costs of an EA and election equipment needed to avoid an election catastrophe.”
She pointed out the county’s equipment is similar in age to equipment in Wood County, which had broken down.
Ronnica Ridgeway also said an EA would ease a “great deal of stress” and “community concerns,” and that the county clerk’s office contracting with Hart Intercivic to program election machinery means the county saves no money by not having an EA to do so.
Her mother said the county clerk’s office has one deputy with “exceptional” election expertise (Greg Dodson) and that the county might face a rise in election costs when he leaves. Cynthia Ridgeway also said an EA must hold party primary elections if asked, while a county clerk need not.
Brenda Evans, representing the conservative group East Texans for Liberty, presented a letter from that group protesting the proposal for an election administrator.
The letter, read aloud by Fowler, argued the idea had “more negatives” than positives inasmuch as there was no “compelling reason” to expand the county government with the additonal office.
It said creating the post could add $50,000 to the county budget. And in other counties, EA budgets “have increased substantially over time, and it is likely this one will as well,” the letter objected.