A request by the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners for $25,000 to cover election costs was tabled by the Quorum Court Monday night but not before discussions that ran more than an hour. The election for the five-eighths cent Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative is set for June 12. Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose law firm is working for the county on several issues, said one of those issues is the election commission, adding that he had recently sat down with the commission chairman.
“There’s a lot of unnecessary friction there, and we’re working hard to lift that friction,” McDaniel said.
He also touched on the decision by the commission to reject Will Fox, who had been selected by County Judge Henry “Hank”Wilkins IV to serve as acting elections coordinator, replacing Stacy Brown, who resigned several months ago after complaining of a “hostile working relationship.”
“The coordinator answers to the judge, and if the commissioners have problems, they can and should touch base with the judge,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said one of the problems is how the commission spends money, and if they spend it, where do they spend it? He added that the board of election commissioners did not submit an itemized budget explaining what they intended to do with the requested $25,000. Wilkins said that the commission is composed of two Republicans — Chairman Mike Adam and Secretary Stu Soffer — and one Democrat — Cynthia Sims — who are selected by their respective political parties. Wilkins said Sims voted no on the money, while Adam and Soffer voted yes.
County Attorney Jackie Harris said that in his research, he could find no legal precedent granting the commission the authority to set their salaries at $50 per meeting. Responding to a statement by Justice of the Peace Ted Harden, who said the commission cannot hire election workers or set-up people, McDaniel said Adam told him that they had hired people but couldn’t say who they were, how many there were or how much they were being paid.
“If everybody else gives us an itemized budget, but I just tell you that I need, say, $30,000, and you give it to me, that sets a bad precedent,” Justice of the Peace Jimmy Fisher said.
“My only question is if we do not make the appropriation, will the city be able to go ahead with their special election?” Justice of the Peace Dr. Conley Byrd said. “I don’t want us to appear to go on record interfering with the city’s election, and I don’t see how they have the authority now to spend anything. We need to get our ducks in a row.”
McDaniel said his understanding is that there is enough money to hold the June special election in Pine Bluff on the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative but believed that the commission wanted to start gearing up for the September school board elections as well.
“You don’t have to pass this to hold the election,” he said.
The 2017 budget for Jefferson County was approved in April and re-approved at the meeting Monday after some changes and additions were made to it. That budget appropriated $97,400 for elections and, after she checked, Jefferson County Clerk Shawndra Taggart said there is currently $42,000 in the account, along with another $28,800 in a separate account for contract labor.
“We’re trying to make some sense out of it,” said Lloyd Franklin Jr., who works for Wilkins and has been researching the issue. “There has to be some accountability. They’ve got employees who are being contracted but there’s no paperwork on file in the clerk’s office. If they hire employees, there has got to be paperwork.”
Franklin said the lack of paperwork is something that Legislative Audit, which is currently conducting an audit of Jefferson County finances, has already mentioned in their initial work. Getting back to the $50 per hour rate the commissioners are asking for, Wilkins said it put him in a “precarious position.”
“How do I approve $50 an hour when they have staff to do the work?” he said.