A proposed appropriation ordinance that would pay a person who was available to work during the Pine Bluff special election for Go Forward Pine Bluff was recommended for approval by a committee of the Jefferson County Quorum Court Thursday night, despite the fact the person was not allowed to do the job.
Committees of the Quorum Court normally meet on the first Tuesday of each month, but because of the Fourth of July holiday, the meeting was pushed back to Thursday. The full Quorum Court meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday. Also Thursday, a proposed ordinance that would have given county elected officials, including members of the county’s legislative body, a salary increase was rejected.
Regarding the election, money had been designated to pay Will Fox, who was chosen by Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV as interim election coordinator after the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners certified Fox as an election worker; however, the certification was later withdrawn.
Fox was present at the commission office while the Go Forward sales tax votes were being counted but was not allowed to assist, even when a machine malfunction forced the commissioners to try and count the votes by hand. The election commission contends that the judge had no authority to appoint Fox to the position, saying they did not have to work with him.
Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who, by state law, is designated as the attorney for the commission, said during Thursday’s meeting that the commission did not ask for the appropriation to pay Fox, which would have come out of funds budgeted for elections this year.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to pay Fox out of their budget,” Hunter said.
State law provides that the county judge has the authority to hire an election coordinator, a fact Hunter said went without question. But he said that the commission had chosen not to use that person and instead asked that the funds come from the county judge’s budget instead.
“The money appropriated for the commission is for the commission’s use,” Hunter said.
Hunter also said that as the proposed ordinance is written, it calls for the funds to be taken from a line item that currently has no funds in it. County Attorney Jackie Harris said it would be acceptable to transfer the funds from County General to that line item to avoid a negative balance.
The actions Thursday were the latest in an ongoing dispute between Wilkins and two members of the election commission, Chairman Mike Adam and Secretary Stu Soffer, both Republicans. Wilkins is a Democrat.
Fox worked as an election coordinator for a period of time under former Jefferson County Judge Dutch King. He was replaced by retired Pine Bluff Fire Fighter Scott Moore, who later accepted a position in Little Rock, and then by Stacy Brown, who had been Moore’s assistant. Brown resigned earlier this year, citing a “hostile work environment,” something Wilkins mentioned Thursday night.
The judge also cited a vote by Adam and Soffer to pay themselves $50 an hour for performing election commission business and submitting invoices, which Wilkins has refused to pay.
Earlier this year, Hunter, Harris and former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose law firm has been retained by the county for several purposes, including the election commission problems, met for several hours with members of the commission and Wilkins to try and work out a settlement to no avail. Hunter suggested Thursday night that perhaps he and Wilkins should meet again and see if they can resolve the issue. Justice of the Peace Dr. Conley Byrd of Redfield described the situation as a “Mexican stand-off.”
“I think the attorney’s and the judge need to get together,” Byrd said.
In previous emails to the Commercial, Soffer has mentioned that Wilkins said he was planning to advertise for a new coordinator; Wilkins said that is still the case.
“We will no longer use Mr. Fox, and we invite the commissioners to be a part of the interview process,” Wilkins said. “Then we will see whether they will accept my choice.”
In a recent interview, Fox said that it was important to have a new election coordinator on board before the September school board elections so they can start to train in preparation for the March 2018 political primaries.
“If the counting in the Go Forward election was a nightmare, a complete election could be a disaster,” Lloyd Franklin III, the chief of staff for Wilkins, said. “It’s the judge’s responsibility to provide the resources to ensure a fair and transparent election, and if they don’t want to use those resources then it will be on them.”
Fox said that would be happy to consult with and work training a new coordinator.
“You have the authority to make the choice and they can choose not to use that person, but that can’t choose not to pay,” Justice of the Peace Danny Holcomb said.
Regarding raises for elected officials, a letter dated June 21 from Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson to Wilkins, Harris and to members of the Quorum Court cited an Arkansas law that Robinson said mandated a 3-percent cost of living adjustment for elected officials. However, Dr. Herman Ginger, chairman of the Quorum Court Finance Committee, said that was not the case.
Instead, he said the legislation requires that a schedule of the minimum and maximum salaries for elected county officials, with a cost of living adjustment added, be prepared in September of each year for the following year. He said that raises are not required as long as the salaries of county elected officials do not fall below the minimum.
In the letter, Robinson said county elected officials have not had a raise since 2008, and that those raises were based on the cost of living then.
“Seven years ago bread cost a dollar, and now it’s about three dollars,” Robinson said. “Things don’t cost the same as they used to.”
He was seeking a 6-percent salary increase, which, according to the county treasurer, would cost the county $46,000.
“Are we going to give 6-percent raises to the elected officials with no consideration for the other county employees?” Byrd said. “I thought we were going to try and address this for all county employees who deserve raises.”
Ginger also pointed out that the proposed legislation, as written, would mandate a 3-percent salary increase each January for elected officials from now on. By a show of hands, the proposal was defeated with three no votes and one yes vote. Ginger, who would have voted only in case of a tie, did not vote.