Two members of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners have been formally notified that they are being sued for failure to allow the election commissioner selected by the county judge to do his job. Commission Chairman Mike Adam and Commission Secretary Stu Soffer were named in their official capacity in the formal notices that were filed in the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's Office late Thursday afternoon.
The Jefferson County Election Commission was also named in the suit, but not the name of its third member Cynthia Sims.
The lawsuit is based on a petition filed July 14 by attorneys for Count Judge Henry “Hank Wilkins IV. It accuses Adam and Soffer of refusing to work with Will Fox, who Wilkins had named election coordinator before the Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election. The suit says that refusal “resulted in anomalies in the election. Mr. Fox has attempted to assist in the election process that has occurred this year but Mr. Soffer has threatened Mr. Fox and attempted to have him removed from public meetings.”
The petition went on to say that the lack of knowledge by the commission and their refusal to work with Fox resulted in problems during the attempt to count ballots from the tax election.
“But they were unable to operate the election reporting manager, which tallies votes from the electronic voting machines. As a result, they were forced to tally votes by hand, which is a violation of law,” according to the petition.
After the petition was filed, Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. issued a temporary order to Adam and Soffer, instructing them to cooperate with Fox and give him access to the election commission office, computer passwords and the like so that Fox could prepare for the September school board elections.
Wyatt set a hearing on the petition for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and instructed all parties to be accompanied by their attorneys. Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who by state law is the attorney for the commission, said Monday he was aware of the petition and would have no comment on it.
Adam and Soffer have deferred all comments on the issue to Hunter. Adam had previously asked for an Attorney General's opinion to determine if the commission could hire an election coordinator without the approval of the county judge — that opinion, dated July 7, said no.
In the opinion, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said state statutes give the county judge the authority to “purchase labor or services performed by individuals or firms by the county or an agency thereof for salaries, wages, insurance and compensation. In my opinion, this would also extend to contracting for the services of an election coordinator, assuming funds are appropriated by the Quorum Court for that purpose.”
Rutledge also rejected the argument that Adam and Soffer have presented that they fall under an exemption to the law which deals with “other elected officials” because they are elected by their respective political parties. She said in the opinion that the statute defines other elected officials as “county officers whose salaries are fixed by the Quorum Court.”
The opinion also said that while the election commission is responsible for ensuring that there are a “sufficient number of election officials” at each polling site, the commission does not have the authority to contract with those workers. That authority rests solely with the county judge. The lawsuit is the latest in the on-going feud between Adams and Soffer, who are Republicans, and Wilkins, who is a Democrat.