An appropriation ordinance to pay Will Fox for being available to help the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners (CBEC) during the Go Forward Pine Bluff special election in June was approved by the Quorum Court Monday night, despite the fact that the commissioners did not ask for the appropriation.
Commission Secretary Stu Soffer said during the meeting that he was speaking as an individual and asked that the county “not move money around without our approval.”
Before the election, Fox had been certified as an election official by the board of election commissioners, but after he was named interim election coordinator by County Judge Henry '“Hank” Wilkins IV, the commission, during a public meeting, withdrew Fox's certification, saying that the judge had no authority to appoint him as coordinator.
The certification withdrawal came as a result of a vote by Soffer and Commission Chairman Mike Adam, both Republicans. Wilkins is a Democrat. Fox was present at the election commission office while the votes were being counted but was not allowed to help, even when a machine used to count votes malfunctioned and commissioners tried to hand count absentee ballots.
Wilkins authorized the transfer of $4,886 from the County General fund, money that had already been designated for election expenses to cover Fox's salary and benefits — a transfer that Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who, by law, is the attorney for the commission, also objected to. Hunter asked instead that the funds to pay Fox come from the county judge's budget, but that was rejected by the justices.
Justice of the Peace Dr. Conley Byrd, one of four Republicans on the Quorum Court, was the only member of the county's legislative body to object to the ordinance. During committee meetings last week, Byrd asked Wilkins to meet with members of the election commission, Hunter and attorneys for the county to resolve the issue; when Wilkins said that meeting had not taken place, Byrd proposed tabling the ordinance until such a meeting could happen.. His motion died for lack of a second.
Late Friday afternoon, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, in response to questions from Election Commission Chairman Mike Adam, said the commission could not enter into a contract with an election coordinator without Wilkins' approval.
In an almost five-page opining, Rutledge said the Arkansas Constitution gives the county judge the authority to authorize and spend funds appropriated by the Quorum Court, and this authority extends to the purchase of labor or services performed by individuals or agencies, which would include contracting for an elections coordinator. That authority is subject to an exclusion, which provides that other elected officials have the same authority when it applies to their own offices.
Rutledge also shot down claims by Adam and Soffer that they are “other elected officials,” and therefore they fall under the exception to the judge's authority. The opinion said “other elected officials” are county officers whose salaries are fixed by the Quorum Court, specifically the county judge, sheriff, county (tax) collector, county clerk, circuit clerk, assessor, treasurer, coroner and county surveyor.
Members of the County Board of Election Commissioners are elected only by their respective county (political party) committees. A second question relating to hiring extra help to “assist county election commissioners in conducting elections without the involvement of the county judge” was asked by Adam.
And again Rutledge said in the opinion that while state law makes the election commission responsible for making sure that there are an adequate number of workers at each polling site, “it does not stand as authority for a CBEC to actually contract for those services. That authority, in my opinion, remains within the exclusive purview of the county judge, assuming the necessary funds have been appropriated.”
At the request of the commission, the Quorum Court approved a $57,800 appropriation to cover the costs of the September school elections, which will involve all four school districts. One of those, the Dollarway District, will vote only on school millage, while the other three, Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel and White Hall, will vote on millage, as well as candidates for their respective school boards. According to the ordinance, that money will be reimbursed 100 percent by the districts.
Also on Monday, the court's Finance Committee again discussed a request from the county's elected officials for a 6-percent pay raise. The item was placed on the agenda for discussion only, with no action to be taken. As he did last week, Sheriff Gerald Robinson, speaking for the elected officials, said that the last time the elected officials had a pay raise was in 2008. Displaying a well-worn copy of the Commercial from that meeting, Robinson said some of the elected officials then received more than a 6-percent increase to bring their salaries closer to other elected officials. Robinson also said that the treasurer had confirmed that the money to pay the increased salaries, $46,807.42, was available.
“It disturbs me that we are considering increasing salaries by 6-percent but our employees are not receiving raises,” Byrd said. “Some of them have gotten bonuses and some have gotten raises, but not across the board.”
Byrd proposed holding off until 2019, after the next general election, to allow potentially new members of the county's legislative body to vote on raises for elected officials, which would include themselves.
“It's not fair to the employees and to the public at large,” Byrd said.
Speaking for the raises, County Assessor Yvonne Humphrey said that while a 6-percent increase might not be possible now, she asked that the members of the Quorum Court recognize the work that she and other elected officials do.
“I'm frequently here from sunup to sundown,” she said. “I work weekends and holidays. I work when the courthouse is closed. At least consider that.”
Justice of the Peace Ted Harden said it would be helpful to know how many of the county's employees have received either raises or bonuses after the offices they work in shifted or dropped vacant slots.
“I know several of them got something,” Harden said.