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Board of Elections members bristle over Mayor’s plan for a search committee

Mayor Lester Miller forms committee to choose elections supervisor after rejecting the Board of Election’s candidate.

MACON, Ga. — Select members of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections, Mayor Lester Miller, and two county commissioners will be choosing the next candidate for elections supervisor.

In a special called meeting Tuesday, the elections board voted 3-2 to agree to participate in the plan, although none of the board members were happy about it. Miller will assemble a Democrat and a Republican from the board and a representative of each party from the county commission to join him on a five-person committee to identify a candidate to go before the mayor and commission for final approval. Miller has selected commissioners Elaine Lucas and Bill Howell.

After Jeanetta Watson announced her retirement in January, the Board of Elections did what it traditionally does – agree on a nomination to send to the governing body for approval, which it did in late April.

However, in May, the mayor did not put the board’s recommendation on the agenda and the county commission declined to take up the board’s recommendation of former deputy registrar Canetra Ford. Instead, the county reposted the job.

Ford’s nomination derailed once politically-charged social media posts surfaced in accounts bearing her name.

Board of Elections Chair Mike Kaplan, the independent member of the board of elections, characterized the move as “changing the process,” but the mayor said he is following the charter of the consolidated government.

Macon-Bibb’s code of ordinances states: “The governing authority of Bibb County, upon the recommendation of the board of elections, shall appoint a person whose title shall be ‘elections supervisor,’ who shall be the chief administrative officer of the board…”

When the board formally withdrew Ford from contention, Kaplan said the process had failed them, her, and the citizens because Ford’s candidacy became public, as did the rejection. The board agreed to send a letter of apology to Ford.

The elections board members assumed they would choose another candidate to send to the mayor and council, but Miller said it’s within his authority to form a selection committee, especially in this politically charged climate of recounts, lawsuits, challenges to election law, and distrust in election security.

“I’m not trying to change the way it is, we’re just following the process that we believe the law was intended to do, and I just felt it necessary to include them as part of our committee process because they’re in that position,” Miller told The Macon Newsroom Wednesday. “I could have just nominated a person myself. I could have chosen no commissioners and just four people off the street if we wanted to, but I just thought to cool down any allegations of politics being involved to have equal representation from both parties and both groups from the committee over there and our commission here.”

The mayor said the law makes no provision for the selection process to keep pinging back between the board and commission. The ultimate authority for appointment rests with the governing body, which is the mayor and commission, Miller said.

“All parties are represented if they’re worried about politics,” the mayor said. “I believe this is a fair process.”

‘Reluctantly’ agree to participate

Fearing the elections board could be left out of the nomination process if members didn’t agree to participate, Darius Maynard “reluctantly” made a motion to approve and Joel Hazard seconded it, which initiated the board’s discussion.

“It seems to me it would be excluding the independent member of our board that helps bring balance when we’re having a discussion,” said Maynard, one of two Democrats on the board. “I think we would be missing out on that because it’s excluding the independent who is the balance.”

Republican board member Herb Spangler opposed the mayor’s plan which he said usurped the board’s authority.

“The supervisor works for the board, she works at the board’s pleasure,” Spangler said. “Are they going to tell us who they want to send up here to work for us and then are they going to tell her how to run the office? We need to be careful here. There’s a precedent there. Do we really want to give up the board’s authority? … I’m against it. That’s the only way I see it.”

Spangler suggested taking the county to court and voted against accepting the mayor’s plan, as did Kaplan.

Although Maynard said he agreed with Spangler, he also did not want to abdicate any role board members could play in the process going forward.

“Not to say that we’re conceding anything, but to say that with this process we want to be involved. We have to be involved,” Maynard said. “It’s not a dig at the commission, it’s just we know how this place runs.”

The other Democrat representative on the board, Karen Evans-Daniel said: “This board will know who looks good on paper and can’t do the job.”

Fully vet candidates before voting

Miller said he wants to ensure future candidates are fully vetted before their names are released.

“Because of the politics that had been alleged, to make sure that we had representation from a Republican and Democrat in that committee,” Miller said. “I think that’s been inclusive of them and recognizing that they have a part in this to play when we really weren’t obligated to include them.”

The county has the human resources department and staff does background checks before the name is announced and it’s also the administration’s role to negotiate contracts, salary, and benefits, Miller said.

When the subject came up at Tuesday’s called elections board meeting, Kaplan said he was “choosing his words wisely” but admitted the existing process is flawed. On April 25 in an open session, the board agreed 4-1 to send Ford’s name to the county, assuming the commission would vote on the nomination.

“We all agreed it’s not the best process,” Kaplan said. “The method and process needs to change. … There’s no way the person’s name should be out before us voting.”

Kaplan still balked at county commissioners and the mayor identifying candidates.

“This board was designed to keep politics out of it, and I don’t know how you keep politics out when it’s an elected official. They should have nothing to do with the person who manages the election,” Kaplan said.

In the end, the majority of the board agreed to participate.

“I am totally afraid that if we give up the opportunity, we are going to give up a voice that we may or may not have,” Evans-Daniel said.

New hire expected before November election

Miller said forming the committee this year does not mean this is the way a candidate will be selected in the future and he intends for the elections board to remain the first step in the hiring process.

“I hope we’re setting a precedent by allowing them to recommend a candidate and if it’s not successful then we fall back on the correct representation from both boards to come up with the best candidate for approval. The bottom line is it takes five or six commissioners to agree to select a candidate despite what process you follow,” Miller said.

He intends to put up a candidate for a commission vote only if there is enough support to guarantee approval.

In the committee, which will include yet unnamed members of the elections board, Miller will only vote to break a tie, he said.

There are about 16 active applications for the job, but the posting expires on June 21. 

“We’re going to do it as expeditiously as possible but at the same time, it’s such an important position we’re not going to rush to get someone... So, we certainly will have them by November,” Miller said.

In the interim, elections officer Thomas Gillon will continue as interim elections supervisor.

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

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