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Democrats continue to oppose Smiley on Hall elections board
Lakewood Baptist pastor, Republicans try to smooth tensions
Tom Smiley, left, talks with Kimberly Copeland, middle, after the Hall County Board of Elections meeting on Tuesday. Seated at right is Gala Sheats, who along with fellow Democrat Copeland is opposing Smiley's appointment as chairman of the board.

The Rev. Tom Smiley, new chairman of the Hall County Board of Elections, emphasized his integrity and professionalism amid steadfast opposition from the board’s Democratic members on Tuesday.

It was Smiley’s first board meeting since being appointed by the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday. He’s the pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church and a conservative religious leader in Gainesville.

His appointment attracted criticism from the Democratic members of the board, Kimberly Copeland and Gala Sheats, who argue that his public pronouncements should disqualify him from holding the nonpartisan position.

Smiley read a statement aloud to kick off Tuesday’s meeting.

“My intention as chairman will be to lead with integrity and fairness,” Smiley said, adding that while “we may disagree from time to time, we will respond with civility and appropriate decorum in every interaction.”

Ken Cochran and Craig Lutz, the Republican members of the board, tried to smooth the waters Tuesday. Lutz said he looked forward to the five members working together for the good of Hall County.

“Having worked with you on other issues, I know that you are up to the task,” Lutz said. “I look forward to the five of us together hopefully making our elections as smooth as ever can be expected on those crazy days.”

Copeland also welcomed Smiley to the board, but reiterated that he and Sheats remained opposed to his appointment.

“I would like to welcome you and congratulate you, and I would also like to renew our opposition to you being appointed to the board,” Copeland said. “You said that you can be nonpartisan, but your past public statements — even if you can be nonpartisan — the public is not going to perceive it as such.”

He concluded by saying Smiley would get “a fair chance and hopefully it will work out.”

Smiley is the first chairman of the 2-year-old board, which had been led by former Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee.

Sosebee was a paid employee of Hall County — and prior to that an employee of the state up until the 2015 reform of state election law that handed her position to the county — rather than an appointed citizen.

Before 2015, there were two boards in Hall County responsible for managing voter registration and, separately, elections. Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 1131 to combine the two boards into the Board of Elections and Registration that exists today. Hall County simply calls it the Board of Elections.

Tucked into that state law was a provision requiring that the existing elections director, Sosebee, serve as chair of the board. But after Sosebee resigned in October, the law left it up to the Hall County Board of Commissioners to appoint a new leader for the board.

Sosebee hasn’t been replaced by the county — and the position might never be filled.

Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton said on Tuesday that he and county staff continue to review the structure of the elections office.

Elections operations are currently managed by registration coordinator Terenda Sargent and elections coordinator Paige Nix. Nix was hired about three months ago, Knighton said.

“They have done a great job over these last several months. Things have gone smoothly,” Knighton said. “We’ll continue to take a look at the director position and determine if this is the best model for us. There are other jurisdictions that have slightly different models. We want to make sure that we’re set up now and in the future, and this is the time to make sure the apparatus in place.”

He didn’t say what type of organizational structure is being considered for the office, which manages all elections within the borders of Hall County, or when a decision will be made for the elections director position.

Hall County still has the position on its books and the funding for it, according to human resources Director Bill Moats.