The ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed by Jefferson County Judge Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV on July 14 against Election Commission Chairman Mike Adam and Commission Secretary Stu Soffer, accusing the two of failing to work with Will Fox, who Wilkins had selected as election coordinator for the Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election in June.
A judge ordered Thursday that the Jefferson County Election Commission must perform the duties they are assigned under state law.
The ruling states that while the commission can refuse to use the election coordinator selected by County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, they cannot deny that coordinator access to information needed to conduct elections, nor can they deny the coordinator access to any county property.
In a nearly five-page ruling, Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. also said his court will maintain jurisdiction of the case for enforcement purposes and that failure to obey the order could result in contempt of court, which includes punishment up to and including being sent to the county jail.
“I am most exceptionally pleased that the judge's ruling made it clear that while the commission can refuse to work with the coordinator, they cannot keep the coordinator from doing his or her job,” Wilkins said Friday. “They also do not have the authority to hire their own coordinator and must give the coordinator access to all the information needed to carry out elections.”
Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who by law represents the election commission, declined comment on the ruling.
The ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed by Wilkins on July 14 against Election Commission Chairman Mike Adam and Commission Secretary Stu Soffer, accusing the two of failing to work with Will Fox, who Wilkins had selected as election coordinator for the Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election in June. The third member of the election commission, Cynthia Sims, was not named in the lawsuit. Sims, like Wilkins, is a Democrat. Adam and Soffer are Republicans.
Adam, in an e-mailed statement, said, “We never disputed the county judge's authority to serve as the election commission's contracting agent, the law is explicitly clear on that point. In Thursday's Order, Judge Wyatt validated our contention, which was based on Attorney General Opinion 2010-146 issued by (then) Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
“Commissioner Soffer and I work hard to ensure fair elections are conducted following the many provisions of law. We are appreciative Judge Wyatt made it abundantly clear who is responsible for conducting those elections by reinforcing our authority in statutory matters, one of which is designating and appointing election officials.
“We look forward to working with the county judge to hire a qualified election coordinator acceptable to the election commission, and moving on to the next election cycle.”
The lawsuit said that the refusal of Adam and Soffer to allow Fox to help resulted in election “anomalies,” including problems in attempting to count ballots.
At a preliminary hearing on July 26, Wyatt told both sides to “stop their bickering” and to “remove their personal disagreements from their interactions.”
“It is ridiculous that we have to be here,” Wyatt said during the hearing.
Wilkins also said that he hopes the commission will work with his designated coordinator for the September school board elections.
“It's not a time for more drama,” he said. “It's important that the citizens get a good, fair and clean election.”
In his ruling late Thursday, Wyatt said state law gives election commissions specific tasks, including the selecting of polling sites, determining their boundaries of precincts, designating election workers and designating a place where the votes are to be counted. Not in the law is the authority to hire employees or set determine how much they will get paid.
That authority rests with the county judge.
Also contrary to contentions by Soffer and Adam, members of the County Board of Election Commissioners are not elected officials, Wyatt's ruling said, and they do not have the authority to own property, to file lawsuits, to contract for services or to perform other support functions.
“Therefore, the JCEC must rely on the County Judge to hire an election coordinator to assist the JCEC in preparations for elections,” Wyatt said in the ruling. “The JECE must also rely on the County Judge to maintain office space, to contract for services, to approve expenditures, to manage accounts and other support services.”
“The hiring of an election coordinator by the County Judge to assist the JCEC has historically served an important function for the County,” the ruling said. “The election coordinator historically has had an administrative function in performing the day-to-day tasks of preparing for an election. The JCEC serves its legislative function by performing the various matters assigned to it by statute.”
Wyatt said in the ruling that since the duties of an election coordinator are not defined in state law, it is up to the JCEC to determine what those duties are, and to what extent they will use the coordinator.
“Said another way, the election coordinator can only perform duties assigned to him by the JCEC,” the ruling said. Wyatt added a footnote, saying that, “This is an issue for the Legislature and not the courts to resolve.”
Wyatt went on to say that even though the JCEC is free to refuse to use the coordinator's services, “There are legal limits on the JCEC's ability to act without administrative staff. Members of the JCEC may violate the Freedom of Information Act's open meeting requirement if two or more commissioners meet and conduct official business without properly notifying the press for each meeting.”