Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. listened to attorneys Wednesday for Jefferson County Judge Henry Wilkins IV in a lawsuit against Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners Stu Soffer and Mike Adam regarding Wilkins' hiring of Will Fox as election coordinator.
The dispute arose to a lawsuit after Soffer and Adam allegedly refused to work with Fox. It follows Wyatt issuing a July 14 ruling ordering Adam and Soffer to give 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.”
Wyatt said his existing order will remain in effect and told both parties to submit a brief by Friday, Aug. 11. The judge also told both sides to stop bickering so that the public will have confidence in their abilities to conduct an election.
Wyatt told them to remove their personal disagreements from their interactions so as to avoid further conflict and lamented having their disagreement prompt a lawsuit that necessitated the hearing.
“It is ridiculous that we have to be here,” Wyatt said, noting that Americans died to preserve rights to vote. “Stop the back and forth.”
Wyatt signed the order after former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and attorney Scott Richardson presented him with a petition that said Adam 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.
Leslie Bellamy, the director of elections for the Arkansas Secretary of State, appeared at the hearing in response to a subpoena and was questioned by McDaniel, who is representing Wilkins. Bellamy said she had not ever seen election commissioners refuse to work with a coordinator. McDaniel asked Bellamy if she thought the commissioners and the coordinator work as a check and balance. Bellamy responded “Yes.”
Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter is the attorney for the election commission under state law. He said the state of Arkansas is in a quagmire in determining the role of the election coordinator. Hunter called to the stand Daniel Shults, a staff attorney for the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners.
In response to Hunter's question, Shults said he investigates allegations of violations of election law.
Hunter asked Shults if Arkansas law specifies the duties of the election commission and the election coordinator. Shults said that an Arkansas county judge hires an employee to be an election coordinator, who is a county employee in most cases.
“The commission has the authority to conduct the election,” Shults said. “The coordinator is a preacher of convenience.”
Richardson also represents Wilkins and asked Shults if he was familiar with the Freedom of Information Act to which Shults responded “yes.” Richardson asked Shults if he was familiar with open meetings laws and Shults said “yes.”
Richardson also asked Shults if two commissioners discussing election-related business outside of a meeting violates the Freedom of Information Act and Shults also said “yes.”
The petition also said that Fox was available to help with the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax election but that 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 Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who wrote that “a CBEC cannot contract for an election coordinator without the County Judge's approval.”
After the hearing, Soffer declined to say if he would remain an election commissioner. After the hearing, Adam said he has no idea if he would remain an election commissioner.