The Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners voted 2-1 along party lines Thursday to “decline the offer” of an interim election coordinator by Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV for the June 13 special election on the Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax. The three-member election commission is comprised of Republicans Stu Soffer and Mike Adam and Democrat Cynthia Sims. Wilkins is a Democrat.
The previous election coordinator, Stacy Brown, resigned her position in March and went to work for Wilkins. The judge subsequently rejected a resolution approved by the election commission to enable the commissioners, rather than Wilkins, to select and supervise the position. County judges are responsible for hiring and firing election coordinators under Arkansas law. Election coordinators are responsible for a variety of tasks on Election Day, including setting up and maintaining voting machines, as well as closing down polling places.
To work on an election, election officials must be certified by the election commission. Soffer and Adam say that election coordinators are election officials, and thus they should have input over who is hired for the position.
“Hiring is the dollars and cents with the person,” Adam said. “Appointing is, they are going to be handling election materials. And it’s important the commission have jurisdiction over that.”
Wilkins hired Will Fox, who served as election coordinator under former county judge Dutch King, as the interim coordinator for the Go Forward election. King fired Fox in 2015 after Fox refused to accept a pay cut. Fox was certified by the commission on April 5 as “support staff” for the special election. But with Thursday’s vote, Soffer said the commission was decertifying him.
“I recognize that the election commission has to certify that they’re going to work with an official,” Wilkins said. “Part of what’s strange about this is they’ve said they need someone with experience. Fox does. They also asked him to assist in the upcoming election.
“So I’m somewhat surprised that they would reject a person with his experience and credentials to assist them. But at the same time, I’m not surprised, because there has been a lack of respect for voters and quite honestly voter suppression [by the commission], that gives me great cause for concern.”
County Attorney Jackie Harris also disputed the commission’s vote.
“The judge doesn’t have to have input from them,” Harris said. “[Fox is] a county employee.”
The commission voted after going into executive session to discuss what they said was a personnel matter.
“I checked with the prosecuting attorney to see if what we wanted to discuss is appropriate for executive session,” Soffer said.
After the commissioners left the room, Lloyd Franklin, Wilkins’ chief of staff, looked puzzled.
“Are they going into executive session about an employee that’s not their employee?” Franklin said.
The commission met for approximately 15 minutes in closed session. Sims could be heard shouting from the next room. When the commissioners came back into the meeting, Soffer made a motion “to decline the offer of an interim coordinator.” The commission voted 2-1, with Sims opposing.
“We thank the judge,” Soffer said. “And we encourage the judge to do what he said he’d do… and begin the search for a permanent coordinator.”
Soffer and Adam maintain that a permanent election coordinator is required. Asked how long it takes to train a coordinator, Adam said training someone with no prior experience would take six months. Soffer pointed at a sheet verifying payment to Fox for work already performed.
“Get Mr. Fox to sign the sheet,” Soffer said.
“I don’t need to sign that sheet,” Fox said. “I’m already hired by the judge, so that would be double payment.”
After the meeting, Adam said it was only natural for the commission to have a say in who the coordinator is.
“The contract of the previous coordinator, that she and I and Dutch King signed, it worked well when we did that,” Adam said. “It gave the day-to-day supervisory position to me. It only makes sense.”
“The judge is hiring someone, he’s paying them, but he’s not responsible for them,” Adam continued. “We have to do the election, we have to make sure it’s done right. We have to follow the laws.”
“In my history with the commission, they prefer to have input over who is hired as the coordinator, even though it’s not under their purview, it’s strictly the county judge’s,” he said. “In my opinion, the judge has impressed upon them someone not of their choosing. However, at this time, with the lack of a trained coordinator, I’m the one with the greatest amount of knowledge to assist in carrying out the wishes of the voters.”