By a 2-1 vote, the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday rejected County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV’s latest choice for election coordinator.
On Sept. 7, Wilkins named Gould Police Chief and former Arkansas State legislator Efrem Elliott as the coordinator, replacing Will Fox, who Wilkins had named as coordinator before the June Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election and who had previously been hired by the commission but was decertified at a special called meeting while being considered for the permanent job by Wilkins.
Commission Chairman Mike Adam and Commission Secretary Stu Soffer, both Republicans, voted to reject Elliott, while Commissioner Cynthia Sims, who, like Wilkins, is a Democrat, voted to approve Elliott.
“His skill set doesn’t match and of all the applicants, he is not the best qualified,” Soffer said. “The best candidate is Julie Kendrick,” who has been serving as Jefferson County Election Clerk since 2016. In that position, Kendrick assisted former coordinators Will Fox, Scott Moore and Stacy Brown with the day-to-day operations of the office.
“We’ve previously turned down two coordinators, one of them under similar circumstances,” Soffer said, referring to the 2016 decision by then-County Judge Dutch King to hire Kim Taylor, who is the case coordinator for Fifth Division Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis, to replace Brown, who resigned citing a hostile work environment.
A confrontation between King and the commission was avoided when Brown agreed to stay on the job. She resigned again earlier this year.
In his letter offering Elliott the position, Wilkins said that Elliott’s work as a staff member of the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement and Training “will do doubt help your work as Election Coordinator. The responsibilities of the Election Coordinator, just as Law Enforcement Standards calls on the Election Coordinator to assist the Election Commission with its duty to conduct elections by both the letter and spirit of the law.”
On Friday, Wilkins said they (the commission) “has rejected the most qualified person. No one else that they have ever had the opportunity to hire had public service as well as employment experience. He has been employed in a position that handles state compliance laws which is what the coordinator is supposed to do — handle the nuts and bolts of an election and make sure everything is proper and conforms to all state and election laws.”
Wilkins had taken Adam and Soffer to court after the two refused to work with Fox, and in a ruling on Aug. 31, Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. ordered the commission to perform the duties they are assigned under state law, and to allow the coordinator the information they need to conduct elections.
“Judge Wyatt’s order affirms what we have always contended,” Soffer said. “Yes, the judge has the authority to hire an election coordinator, but if we don’t agree with the selection, we are not compelled to use their services.”
In that ruling, Wyatt also said that state law gives election commissioners specific tasks, including the selection of polling sites, determining the 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 determine how much they will be paid. That authority rests with the county judge.
In the court hearing that preceded the ruling, Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, who is by law the attorney for the commission, said the state is “in a quagmire in determining the role of the election coordinator, and in his ruling, Wyatt said that since state law does not define the duties of an election coordinator, and the coordinator can only perform the duties assigned to him by the commission.”
Adam had previously 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 in an opinion by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who wrote that “a CBEC (County Board of Election Commissioners) cannot contract for an election coordinator without the County Judge’s approval.”
After the ruling, an e-mailed statement from Adam said, “we look forward to working with the county jduge to hire a qualified election coordinator acceptable to the election commission and moving on to the next election cycle.”
Sims, who had voted to accept Elliott as coordinator, said, “this is going to go on and on and on, I know that.”
She also mentioned that Wilkins had offered the commission the opportunity to sit in on the interviews with applicants, an opportunity the commission declined.
“We wanted to interview them, but in a public meeting,” Soffer said. “To do that (sit in on the interviews) would violate the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).”
Judge Wyatt said essentially the same thing in his ruling, noting that “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 open meeting requirement if two or more commissioners meet and conduct official business without properly notifying the press for each meeting.”
On Friday, Wilkins said Elliott learned the job by volunteering and by training with Fox with “nothing promised to him. When he applied for the position. I took that into account along with his background in election law and other state compliance laws. I also took into consideration his understanding of law enforcement as Chief of two municiplaities as well as having been a school board member (the Dollarway School District) and a State Representative who went through elections and who understands state and election procedures and state and election laws.”
Sims said that since someone had had to train the former coordinators, “Someone can teach him,” mentioning Fox.
“Will Fox is not acceptable to us,” Soffer said.
Also on Wednesday, the commission voted to send the Pine Bluff School District a bill for $38,146.61 for conducting the June 13 school board election, which will go to the county. That figure, according to Soffer, is about $3,000 short of the amount that is due because the county has not signed off on some of the expenses, including money owed to Kendrick, mileage for roving voting machine technicians, and to Adam and Soffer.
Specifically, Soffer said in an e-mail to The Commercial Friday that Kendrick is owed $1,455 for 97 hours of work in meeting the commission’s statutory responsibility’s in preparing and conducting the school elections.
“The election commission had no choice but to appoint Ms. Kendrick to accomplish the tasks court-imposed coordinator Will Fox neglected or was unavailable to perform due to pressing personal business obligations,” Soffer said in an e-mail.
However, in the same e-mail, Soffer said, “Ms. Kendrick accomplished what the county judge’s coordinator did not, and because he was not an appointed election official, could not.”
Lloyd Franklin II, the Chief of Staff for Wilkins, said Friday that state law provides that an employee not hired by another elected official can only be hired by the county judge, and “the commission has chosen to ignore that law.”
“The commission has the authority to appoint poll workers and election workers, but the judge decides who is going to work and what they are going to get paid,” Franklin said. “They have been warned to stop hiring people because they don’t have the authority.”