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story.lead_photo.caption Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson is shown in this file photo viewing the flooding at Island Harbor Estates. At right is Courtney Kelly, a marine patrol officer with the sheriff’s office. - Photo by Dale Ellis

PINE BLUFF -- An election coordinator hired by the Jefferson County judge has been rejected by the county's election commission.

Election Commissioners Michael Adam and Stuart Soffer said a coordinator isn't needed and that the commission has no legal obligation to provide a coordinator with any duties.

Adam, chairman of the election commission, said County Judge Gerald Robinson selected Herman Horace, 66, to assist commissioners as an election coordinator. Horace is the former president of the Pine Bluff School Board that was removed when the state took over the school district in 2018.

Adam said in a letter to Robinson dated Wednesday that, by statute, only the County Board of Election Commissioners is allowed to designate election officials and that the board does that explicitly for each election.

"Although Mr. Herman [sic] has absolutely no hands-on election experience as an election official, he presented himself as a $38,000 annually compensated part-time employee. ... By ignoring our recommendation and having a salaried coordinator as opposed to an hourly, the county cannot be reimbursed for the cost of any election."

Contacted by phone Thursday, Robinson said Horace was not hired as a salaried election coordinator but would be paid $15.63 an hour to work elections. Robinson said he had set aside $32,500 from the contract services fund to ensure there would be sufficient funds to pay Horace.

"He's not going to work 40 hours a week, but I wanted to put enough in there just to make sure that we had it covered," Robinson said. "He is contract labor, not a full-time employee.

"I'm sending him to different trainings. He's already been to one state training, and I'm going to be sending him to some other elections training."

Robinson said he also is looking at making changes in how the election commission operates.

"I am defining the duties of the election commissioners and the election coordinator," he said. "I'm going to fine-tune this thing, because there's some work the election commissioners are doing that contradicts what the election commissioners should be doing and [they are] getting paid for it, and that shouldn't be."

Robinson said he was specifically referring to contract work that Soffer performs in preparing elections and training poll workers, for which Soffer bills the county.

Soffer said that, according to state law, the county judge's role regarding the election commission is limited to hiring, approval of disbursement of funds for payment of invoices and oversight of county property used to conduct elections.

"He doesn't get to fine-tune a darned thing," Soffer said. "As far as me getting paid, the attorney general has opined that doing so is legal."

In an opinion written in 2016, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge addressed the subject of whether county election commissioners could be paid for performing election-related tasks during primary elections.

Opinion 2016-040 states: "In my opinion, the answer to this question is 'yes' with respect to commissioners' performance of tasks that are necessary to the conduct of the election and are impossible or impracticable to perform within the context of a public meeting."

The County Board of Election Commissioners Procedures Manual reiterates that opinion on Page 20 in a section regarding compensation: "Individual counties may pay election commissioners for performing various election-related tasks outside a public meeting. [Attorney General's Opinion No. 2016-040]."

In a March 22, 2018, email from Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter to Soffer and members of the Quorum Court, Hunter said former County Judge Hank Wilkins IV had attempted to disrupt the election process "from the day he took office" and that the county was in a crisis situation regarding the May primary elections. Hunter urged the Quorum Court to approve payment to Soffer to program the election.

"The time to correct the problem is short, so I encourage Stu [Soffer] to do the work necessary to correct the ballot programming errors, and I encourage the Quorum Court to pay Stu for the services he provides," Hunter wrote.

Adam said he first became aware that Horace had been hired as election coordinator when Horace arrived at the election commission offices Tuesday evening while school elections were taking place.

"He was sitting back there waiting for me when I came in," Adam said. "He said, 'Can we talk a minute?' And I said, 'No problem at all.' He said, 'I just wanted to find out what my job is. I'm an election coordinator.'"

Adam said Horace told him that he had been hired by Robinson and was given an election coordinator's badge and a key to the election commission office. Adam said he asked Horace when he'd been hired, and Horace told him it was about Oct. 15.

Adam said he first encountered Horace at an election commissioner training session last month at the state Board of Election Commissioners.

"He said he thought maybe he was supposed to be an election commissioner or maybe coordinator, he didn't know," Adam said. "But he said the judge just told him to go take the training."

Horace did not return a call from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for comment Thursday evening.

Adam said the election commission has no legal obligation to put Horace, or anyone else, to work as an election coordinator, an assertion that was backed up by an Arkansas Supreme Court decision last year.

In that case, the state Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Jefferson County Circuit Court ordering the election commission to utilize the services of an election coordinator Wilkins had hired.

Daniel Shults, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said Thursday that the role of election coordinator is not defined in state law and that the state Supreme Court's 2018 decision put the Jefferson County Election Commission on solid legal ground.

"The election coordinator is a position that was developed at the county level as a way to provide the commission staff help with their work," Shults said. "The Supreme Court has held that a commission has discretion whether to utilize a county employee hired to serve as an election coordinator. The commission has the power and the responsibility to conduct the election regardless of whether they accept a county employee hired as an election coordinator."

State Desk on 11/08/2019

Print Headline: Panel balks at hiring of election coordinator

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