The Hall County elections board may sue the county government, after a 2018 amendment to elections department structure that board members say might have been improper.
Tom Smiley, chairman of the Hall County Board of Elections and Registration, said the change, implemented by the Hall County Board of Commissioners, required the elections director to report to the county administrator and not the elections board. One elections board member said the board had been trying quietly to remedy the issue for months.
The elections board, which includes two members from each major party and a nonpartisan chairman, met Monday, Feb. 22, to discuss the matter.
The question at hand is whether the commissioners had the right to amend legislation, which passed in April 2014 and took effect in January 2015, creating the current elections board, according to Ken Jarrard, the elections board’s retained attorney.
Jarrard said that legislation did not originally have language that gave oversight of the elections director to the county administrator. Amendments to two provisions by the board of commissioners in 2018 added that oversight, he said.
“The board of elections and registration believes it’s appropriate that their elections director report to the Hall County Board of Elections and not Hall County,” Jarrard said.
No suit has yet been filed, and Jarrard said he is still in discussion with county officials on the issue. But, he added, should the parties not reach an agreement, a legal filing could come in the next couple of weeks.
Hall County Elections Director Lori Wurtz attended the meeting Monday but said nothing.
In remarks following his motion to authorize the legal action, if Jarrard deems it necessary, Smiley said he takes “no pleasure in recommending and authorizing legal action,” but that he feels strongly that the “integrity and responsibility of Hall County elections, including the supervision, development and oversight of the director of elections, rests uniquely with this board …”
Smiley called the position of Hall elections director “critically important to the fair, smooth and efficient conduct of Hall County elections,” and reiterated that the director should be accountable to the elections board, as he said the legislation establishing the board intended.
“There is a reason that the conduct and administration of elections is placed in the safekeeping of the board of elections, an entity separate and apart from an elected board of commissioners,” Smiley said. “While I and the board of elections have respect for the board of commissioners and the entire Hall County administration, I believe that the various divisions of government were created for a purpose, and care should be taken to ensure that lines are not blurred.”
The current policy, wherein Wurtz reports to Hall County administration, Smiley said, “constitutes an improper blurring of those lines.”
Wurtz was hired in 2018, after an 18-month absence of an elections director. Charlotte Sosebee, who previously headed the elections department and board, resigned in November 2016.
The Times previously reported that the county had been considering restructuring the elections department following Sosebee’s exodus.
Smiley said the state legislation establishing the Hall County Board of Elections in 2015 intended for accountability that included the elections director, and that the board of commissioners amended it in 2018 to give oversight to the county administrator.
Smiley said he could not speak to the “motivation or reasoning” behind that decision, but, he said, “it is clear that such a reporting structure makes little practical sense.”
Elections board member Craig Lutz said the board’s decision to authorize litigation had been a difficult one.
Lutz said the 2020 election cycle had been “really challenging” and “unprecedented,” and he pointed to the use of new voting machines and the forced combination of multiple elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through all that, he said, the elections office and county administration had worked “very well together.”
“And it’s unfortunate that, while we have been working, really since September, to try and quietly and easily fix the situation that we’re looking to address now, it was first ignored and then finally when we formalized the request, it was pretty much dismissed,” Lutz said.
Lutz called the elections director’s accountability falling to those whose elections the director would oversee “not a good look.”
“It’s my hope that as we go through this, the board of commissioners will realize that is a bad look, and they will undo this and we can basically put this to the side and come to an end to this very quickly,” he said.
County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said county officials would not comment on the matter, given the potential litigation. Wurtz also declined to comment.
Requests for comment from individual Hall County commissioners were either declined or went unanswered.
Neither the county, nor Jarrard, would say whether Wurtz’s position was on the line or why the issue stemming from a 2018 amendment is only now being brought to light.
Jarrard did, however, say “some actions have been taken of late that just highlight the fact that the elections director needs to report to the board of elections.”
He also said he was not aware of the potential litigation having anything to do with any wrongdoing during the 2020 election cycle.
The board voted 4-0 to authorize Jarrard to pursue the litigation, if he deemed it necessary. Board member Ken Cochran was not physically present at the meeting, but listened in by phone. Cochran was not permitted to vote or discuss because of his absence.