The Hall County Board of Commissioners plan to change the selection process for members of the Board of Elections and Registrations to give commissioners more control over the process and bring it into compliance with the state constitution.
But at a fiery board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 14, Board of Elections members slammed proposed changes, calling it “shenanigans” that went beyond the commissioners’ authority.
Hall County officials presented the proposed changes to local legislators on Dec. 9 after the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues event.
In the new proposal, elections board members would be selected by the Board of Commissioners from a list of seven nominees from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Commissioners would select two members from each list of seven, and the chairman of the board would be appointed by the Board of Commissioners.
Currently, two board members are appointed by the Democratic and Republican parties with no involvement from the county. The process of selecting the chairman would not change under the new proposal.
The new process would maintain the current makeup of the board with two members of the Democratic Party and two members of the Republican Party.
The proposal would also limit board members to two 4-year terms and allow the Board of Commissioners to remove a board member “for any reason,” and any vacant position would be filled via appointment by county commissioners. The current statute states that the Board of Commissioners can remove a board member only “for cause, after notice and hearing,” and board members have no term limits.
Chairman Tom Smiley criticized the proposal at length, saying it affected more than only the selection process of board members, and that it did not involve input from he and the board and a change such as this should come from a state authority rather than county commissioners.
“Neither me nor the board was invited to give any opinions or recommendations to this document before it was delivered to the Hall County local legislation (delegation),” Smiley said.
Setting term limits and a new removal process has nothing to do with the selection process, he said. And the proposal does not require that a person removed from the board would have to be replaced by someone from the same political party.
“We now are being threatened to be removed from office for no cause, and we won’t even get a hearing regarding it,” Smiley said.
“There are … 60 counties right now that have the exact same process that Hall County has. And yet for some reason it befalls Hall County to change it.”
He questioned what caused the county to propose the change now.
County attorney Van Stephens said the goal of the proposal is to bring the county into compliance with state law, citing a 2018 Georgia Supreme Court case concerning how DeKalb County’s Board of Ethics members were selected. Bodies with governmental power such as the Board of Elections cannot be selected by private organizations, Stephens said, and political parties could qualify as such.
“I think that the interest of the Board of Elections and the Board of Commissioners should be congruent,” Stephens said. “Both should want to be sure that the voters actually have a voice in the actions of the Board of Elections.”
Earlier this year, the Board of Elections sued Hall government and the county administrator over who should manage the elections director, Lori Wurtz. The two sides settled in May, deciding that the Board of Elections would manage the elections director rather than the county administrator.
Elections board member David Kennedy claimed this contentious legal battle could be part of the county’s motivation for instituting these changes now.
“What they were up to is trying to run off the director of elections, so they could put in whoever they wanted,” Kennedy said. “What are they doing now? … They figured they can’t directly replace (Wurtz) with whoever they wanted, so they’re trying to replace all of us with whoever they want.”
Stephens said that the proposal would not affect the agreement regarding the elections director.
Chairman Richard Higgins told The Times in a phone interview following the meeting that he would be willing to hear suggestions from the Board of Elections to change the proposal, but it did not have authority over its selection process. He said commissioners’ intention was to bring the board in compliance with state law.
“I don’t understand the pushback from the present people (on the Board of Elections),” Higgins said. “We want to make it fair and honest to everybody.”
Smiley said he met with Commissioner Shelly Echols Tuesday to discuss his issues and Echols said she was willing to review some items in the proposal. But, any changes would have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners.
Ultimately, the Board of Elections unanimously passed a motion to ask Stephens to secure outside legal counsel, so that they could draft a response to the proposal and send it to local legislators.
The board’s recommended changes will likely go before the Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 13 meeting.