The ongoing feud between the Hall County elections board and county administrators could soon be heading to a courtroom.
After publicly airing frustrations over the supervision and performance review of elections director Lori Wurtz at various board meetings over the past month, the elections board filed a lawsuit against the Hall County government and County Administrator Jock Connell on March 16.
According to the 67-page civil action document, the elections board states that the Hall County Board of Commissioners had no legal authority in enacting home rule by amending state legislation in 2018. That amendment created the elections director position and established supervisory control of the position under the county administrator.
The board believes that the oversight given to Connell through the amendment -- which includes the day-to-day supervision, disciplinary action and termination of the elections director -- should be a power held under the umbrella of the elections board.
Wurtz is in her third year as the elections director. She was hired in April 2018 as the elections superintendent but soon became the elections director after commissioners made the home rule amendment in July 2018.
In 2014, the passage of a bill formerly titled HB 1131 created a unified five-member board of elections and registration for Hall County, subsequently abolishing the board of registration. The elections board assumed the powers to conduct elections and registration and absentee balloting measures
In the court document, the board argues that the county commissioners did not have the authority to amend the enabling legislation which was passed through a separate legislative body, the Georgia General Assembly, thereby acting out of the scope of their authority.
In its legal argument, the elections board claims the county commissioners were “fatally defective” in their adoption of the amendment, stating that they failed to adopt the resolution at two consecutive regularly scheduled meetings.
The amendment was read at public county commissioner meetings on July 12 and July 26, 2018, but the elections boards state that the amendment was not legally adopted at the July 12 meeting and ask “That the Court declare and find the County’s amendment to the Enabling Legislation is null and void because the county acted … outside the scope of its home rule power in attempting to amend the Enabling Legislation.”
The suit says the commissioners should not have been able, “to impermissibly take action affecting the procedure for election of the county governing authority by having the Hall County Administrator mandate preparation of a comprehensive operations manual for all types of elections.”
Hall County officials would not comment on the lawsuit, citing current litigation.
In an email sent to The Times, elections board chair Tom Smiley stated that while the suit has been filed, the elections board is still open to future mediation efforts with the county administrators.
“I can state that a lawsuit has been filed ... regarding our claim that my belief that the election director should answer and be supervised by the (elections board),” he said. “And that I and the (board of election) have and will remain (open) to mediate with Hall County, even though our numerous efforts have been rebuffed.”
At a March 1 meeting, the election board members — which include two Democrats, two Republicans and one nonpartisan chair position — expressed displeasure over the county administration’s recent performance evaluation of Wurtz as elections director, calling it inconsistent with the county’s praise of the 2020 elections.
The Times, through an open records request, obtained the February 2021 evaluation of Wurtz’s performance in the year prior, in which supervisory staff stated that her overall work quality was “not acceptable.”
Wurtz was cited as having “poor organization in conducting election tasks, poor knowledge of election tasks and lack(ing) quality control regarding mail-in ballots,” by Zach Propes, assistant county administrator.
As a part of the evaluation, Wurtz was required to submit to a performance plan establishing her improvement and goals to Connell
The board is also requesting a preliminary and permanent injunction against Connell, to prevent him from “tak(ing) or pursuing” personnel actions regarding the elections director.
The board believes that Wurtz’s evaluation and the placement of the performance plan is a “signal” that the county wants to fire her.
“The majority of the board, including Dr. Smiley, strongly disagrees with the performance evaluation of Ms. Wurtz” an excerpt from the document reads. “(The) placement of Ms. Wurtz on a performance improvement plan signals the intention to immediately terminate employment while continuing to freeze out the election board of any power or control of the election director position.”
In Wurtz’s 2019 evaluation, obtained by The Times through an open records request, Wurtz was graded positively and staff noted that she “met expectations” in every category.
During that March 1 meeting, board members also expressed dissatisfaction with not being involved with Wurtz’s evaluation, and in subsequent meetings, praised the work she did with an “underfunded” elections budget and pandemic-riddled election.”
The elections board is represented by attorney Ken Jarrard.