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Moving election agency staff hiring to clerk's office is shelved until '20

by Kat Stromquist | November 13, 2019 at 3:30 a.m.

A Pulaski County committee has pressed pause on a measure that would reassign hiring authority for elections department staff members to the circuit/county clerk's office.

Members of the Quorum Court's agenda committee voted 8-6 Tuesday to table until January their review of an ordinance that would shift six full-time election staff members to the supervision of county and circuit clerk Terri Hollingsworth.

The change would move those staffers from under the oversight of the Pulaski County Election Commission, an arrangement that has been in place since 1993.

"What we're trying to do is bring it back [to the clerk's control] and do the right thing," District 10 Justice of the Peace Barry Jefferson, a Democrat and one of the ordinance's sponsors, told the committee.

Hollingsworth framed the ordinance as a way to resolve "communication" issues between the election commission, the elections staff and the clerk's office, which maintains voter registrations in the county.

"I'd been out of the loop," she said, mentioning having lately been left out of discussions about an impending purchase of new voting equipment in the county.

"This is one way to help make sure that there's more coordination."

The three-person election commission's two Republican appointees voiced opposition to the measure, speculating that having the clerk -- an elected official, who may appear on the ballot -- overseeing the staff could be problematic.

"Why change this ordinance now?" commission chairwoman Evelyn Gomez asked. "What is the rationale for that?"

Speakers in favor of and against the ordinance used other counties' practices in support of arguments, while Quorum Court services director Justin Blagg said research had not turned up any consensus among Arkansas counties.

Committee members were divided as they considered the measure, with District 10 Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers, a Republican, urging the group not to make a decision "flippantly."

"To make this kind of dramatic change in the middle of two very important elections could be very disruptive," he said. A special primary election for House District 34 is Jan. 14, and primary elections for many state and municipal offices and the presidency are March 3.

A lengthy discussion and comment period of the measure stretched past the 90-minute mark and had a partisan undercurrent, though it was mentioned only in passing.

Two motions over the course of discussion failed largely along party lines, including a motion by Stowers to push consideration of the issue past the March 3 vote.

In social media posts last week, a Twitter account for the Pulaski County Republicans had decried the ordinance as a "partisan power play" that would transfer authority from the election commission to Hollingsworth and County Judge Barry Hyde, both Democrats.

Like other election commissions in Arkansas, the Pulaski County commission has two Republican-appointed members and one appointed by Democrats.

Commissioners describe the group as "nonpartisan," but it is one of the only GOP-majority bodies in heavily Democratic Pulaski County.

An unusually large crowd that attended Tuesday's meeting included Republican state Sen. Mark Johnson and Republican state Reps. Douglas House and Mark Lowery, who spoke against the ordinance.

Justices of the peace finally settled on considering the rule again in 60 days following a comment from Lillie McMullen, a Democrat from district 5, who said she wanted more time to consider the issue.

Metro on 11/13/2019

Print Headline: Moving election agency staff hiring to clerk's office is shelved until '20

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