Two members of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners have been ordered by a judge not to interfere with County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV's choice for election coordinator.
Specifically, Commission Chairman Mike Adam and Commission Secretary Stu Soffer were ordered Friday by Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. to give Will Fox, whom Wilkins “hired before the Go Forward Pine Bluff special election, all necessary keys, logins, passwords, data, information and any other items necessary to facilitate the election process.”
The commissioners were ordered to provide the information, keys etc. by 10 a.m. Saturday. But as of 3 p.m. Saturday, Fox said he had only received a portion of the information or items ordered to be given to him. Fox said he had spoken with the secretary of state's office and was “trying to figure things out.”
Soffer said Saturday that any comments on the issue would be deferred to Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who, under state law, is the attorney for the election commission. Attempts to reach Hunter on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Late Friday afternoon, Wyatt signed the order after former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and attorney Scott Richardson presented him with a petition that said Adams and Soffer have refused to work with Fox and told him they would not allow him access to the information necessary to prepare for the September school board election.
Wyatt said in the order that it is temporary and “issued without notice due to the deadlines in place for the September school board election.”
He said the order will expire in 14 days “unless extended by good cause.”
All parties were ordered to appear in Wyatt's court at 9:30 a.m. on July 26 for a hearing and will be accompanied by their attorneys.
The petition went on to say that Fox was available to help with the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax election but Adam and Soffer refused to work with him, “which resulted in anomalies in the election.”
That included the inability to operate the Election Report Manager, which counts votes from the electronic voting machines. Additionally, there was an attempt to count the votes by hand, which the petition said is a violation of state law.
The petition also noted that Adam had asked for an Attorney General's opinion to see if they could hire their own coordinator without input from Wilkins, but that idea was rejected by the opinion from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who wrote that “a CBEC cannot contract for an election coordinator without the County Judge's approval.”
The county board also contended that the election coordinator, Fox, could not perform any duties unless he was appointed as an election official by the commission, which the court petition said is “clearly wrong.”
Also according to the petition, Wednesday was the deadline to submit precinct lists, contests and candidates and other items necessary to the company that prepares the electronic ballots, and Friday was the deadline for a public meeting to allow candidates to draw for ballot positions. The petition said the information had not been sent to the company as required.
Friday morning, Wilkins' Chief of Staff Lloyd Franklin said in an affidavit submitted with the petition that he had been contacted by Adam and was told that Soffer would not program the voting machine/ballot software “until and unless the county judge provided him with a written contract for performing the programming services for the voting machines.”
Franklin said in the affidavit that he told Adam that Fox was capable of programming the machines, and Adam responded by saying that Fox was not a certified election official.
“I then reminded Chairman Adam of our conversation held in the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney's Office with the County Judge Hank Wilkins IV, (Prosecuting Attorney) Kyle Hunter, (Chief Deputy Prosecutor)D. Wayne Juneau, Dustin McDaniel, Scott Richardson, Michael Adam and myself, wherein all parties agreed that an election coordinator hired by the county judge is an election official and does not require certification by the County Board of Election Commissioners,” Franklin said in the affidavit.
The petition said Franklin turned down the request for payment “because Arkansas law does not allow a county to pay an Election Commissioner to perform the work of an Election Coordinator.”
“Even so, the Election Commission has now indicated that it will stand in the way of meeting key deadlines in preparation for the upcoming school board elections unless there (sic) are paid,” the petition said. “This is a breach of their public responsibility and a violation of the oath they swore to faithfully perform their duties as commissioners.”
Fox previously served as the elections coordinator during a portion of the term of former County Judge Dutch King and left when King cut his pay during the county's budget crunch. He was replaced by Scott Moore, who had been a technician working on voting machines before retiring from the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department. After Moore retired from the city, he accepted the job of election coordinator but later resigned that to take a firefighting job in Little Rock.
Moore was replaced by Stacy Brown, who had worked in the office as the assistant to Moore; she resigned earlier this year, citing a “hostile work environment.”
Fox was certified as an election official by the commission prior to the special Pine Bluff tax election, and Wilkins has said he chose Fox because he had already received that certification from the commission.
In almost identical emails from Soffer and Adam that were sent to the Commercial on Tuesday, it was said that Fox was certified as an election official for the purpose of preparing the software needed by the company that prepares the ballots and the email said Fox only did a portion of the work. He was de-certified at a subsequent meeting by a unanimous vote. Commissioner Cynthia Sims later changed her vote making it 2-1 for de-certification. Like Wilkins, Sims is a Democrat, while Adam and Soffer are Republicans.
The emails came a day after the Jefferson County Quorum Court approved an ordinance to pay Fox $4,000 plus benefits from County General with funds that had been designated for the use of the election commission, and despite the fact that the commission did not ask for the appropriation to be made. The money was placed in a line item which at that time had no funding which Soffer said in the email was “legalizing an illegal act after-the-fact, moving money without appropriated budget without our approval.”