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Macon-Bibb Board of Elections hires Atlanta attorney in rift with mayor over supervisor selection

Macon-Bibb Mayor Lester Miller says legal wrangling could delay hire until after November election

MACON, Ga. — Attorneys are expected to meet next week to hash out and try to resolve a conflict between the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections and Mayor Lester Miller about who has the authority to select the next elections supervisor.

Former supervisor Jeanetta Watson resigned in January citing the stress of the additional workload under Georgia’s new election laws and the tense political environment. In May, Miller rejected the board’s candidate to replace Watson, and the board later withdrew the nomination.

The county reposted the job and closed the application process June 21. Miller announced he would form and lead a committee to cull the candidates and vote on a nominee to bring before the county commission. That five-person committee would be comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans selected from the elections board and county commission, with Miller as the tie-breaking vote.

Last week, the board of elections held a called meeting for an executive session, presumably to discuss their perceived illegality of the mayor’s plan to form a committee to screen candidates.

Initially, the board reluctantly agreed June 14 to participate in Miller’s selection committee, but also considered taking the mayor to court.

The day after the board voted 3-2 to accept the mayor’s invitation to join the committee, Miller’s comments to The Macon Newsroom, saying that he could have bypassed the board all together and chosen his own candidate, prompted them to push back and fight to select the candidate themselves.

At the conclusion of the closed meeting June 24, the board voted 3-1 to hire Atlanta attorney A. Lee Parks Jr. to represent them.

The board’s regular attorney William Noland functions as independent legal counsel hired and paid through the county attorney’s office, so has a conflict of interest and cannot represent the board in this battle.

Wednesday, after hearing of the board's action, Miller explained that after consolidation of the county and city governments that the mayor ultimately has authority over who is hired because the board’s recommendation must be approved by the governing authority - mayor and commission. He would be able to veto any nominee unless six or more commissioners override, but he stressed last month that he is striving to find someone who could easily be confirmed by the majority.

“We have a different opinion between, I guess, our administration and the board of elections right now on what we believe what the law says,” Miller said Wednesday during taping of the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Ask Mayor Miller program airing Saturday on 13WMAZ.

“I felt like it would be a fair process to have both commissioners and board of elections involved. Put aside politics. We have to have people on both sides of the parties involved in that, but at the end of the day, the law is very clear that the governing body of Macon-Bibb County makes that decision.”

Mike Kaplan, the independent chairperson of the board of elections, said having the mayor be the deciding vote of the committee and commission actually inserts politics into the decision.

“We’re not against Mayor Miller. We’re against the fact that any committee that the elected official, the mayor, has the deciding vote on, not once but twice, is not the way it should be,” Kaplan said in a Friday phone interview.

Miller told The Macon Newsroom last month that he is aiming to find a job candidate who will have the support of the majority of the committee without him having to break a tie, and who will be backed by a majority of the commission.

Kaplan said he hopes the board will be able to submit to the commission a list of finalists from which they will decide who will be hired.

Although both the board and the mayor want to find the best candidate possible, the volunteer board members don’t want to forfeit their responsibility to identify the person for the position. They feel they know better how the office runs and what type of skills are necessary to be effective in the job.

“All we have to do is compromise on this as opposed to someone dictating to us how it’s going to be done,” Kaplan said. “We are absolutely trying to negotiate our way out of this. Absolutely.”

Kaplan is hopeful the attorneys will work out a solution soon.

‘We’re desperate for a resolution, because we do need an executive supervisor. Tom (Gillon, interim supervisor,) is doing a fabulous job right now, but he’s wearing about four hats and it’s wearing him thin,” Kaplan said.

Miller expects the mediation will slow down the search.

“This new process or this new wrinkle… if they have outside counsel… will probably guarantee that we do not have a director by November, so it may go on for a couple of years, who knows?” Miller said.

Kaplan blames any delay in hiring a supervisor on the mayor’s refusal to meet to discuss the process, but instead dictate how the process should go.

“We 100 percent know that the governing authority of Macon-Bibb County has the absolute right to hire this person. We know that,” Kaplan said. “But the way we interpret is, it must come from a list of candidates that they receive from the board of elections. And that’s the process, and that’s the way we think the process needs to go, period.”

– Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

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