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LETTERS / Why Was Incorruptible Director Hounded Out of Her Position?

Feb. 2, 2015. Dear Editor,

Jane Ann Hodges will retire in July after nearly three decades as Director of the Watauga County Board of Elections, according to recent local news stories. Although it comes as no surprise, this news is truly shocking because hers is no simple retirement after years of dedicated service. She was hounded out of her post as part of a plan that threatens to undermine our local democratic institutions.

Jane Ann Hodges thrived as Director for 29 years because she is always cordial and professional, and because she is incorruptible. She has angered Democrats and Republicans alike at times because she cannot be pressured to take a partisan position. According to a recent High Country Press story, Hodges herself is an unaffiliated voter and has cast ballots for both Republican and Democratic candidates over the years.

The two Republican members of the current Watauga County Board of Elections, Luke Eggers and Bill Aceto, nonetheless began their campaign against Hodges the first day they were appointed to the Board of Elections in August 2013. Eggers and Aceto are young men and inexperienced in local government. But they were willing pawns in a concerted effort by local Republican heavyweights to get Hodges to quit.

Their first day in office, Eggers and Aceto submitted a series of proposals aimed at restructuring county precincts and polling places and at hamstringing Hodges. The Winston-Salem Journal checked the computer thumbprint of these proposals and found that they were drafted by Stacy Clyde Eggers IV, also known as “Four.” He is a former Chair of the Watauga County Board of Elections, a local Republican leader, the current Watauga County attorney and Luke Eggers’ brother.  Although Luke Eggers and Aceto did not provide those proposals to Hodges or to the Democrat member of the Board of Elections, Kathleen Campbell, until minutes before the meeting began, Watauga County Republican Party Chair Anne-Marie Yates did know of the proposals ahead of time. At the time, her brother Mark Templeton was actually a candidate for Boone Town Council.

At that first meeting, Luke Eggers and Aceto proposed that no staff member of the Watauga County Board of Elections could be present at the office outside of normal business hours from the time one-stop voting starts until the completion of the canvass unless another staff member was present.

Hodges noted that during the election season she was often in the office from 6 am to midnight. She said it would be impossible to have another staff member around her at all times. Eggers countered that the proposal would insure the security of the ballots.

Also at that August meeting, Eggers and Aceto placed a gag order on Hodges. Most elected or appointed members of governmental or non-governmental boards consider it a privilege to use the wisdom and expertise of the career professionals who serve them. Generally, board members seek clarifications of law and of precedent from those career professionals. Not in this case. Rather than seek counsel from Hodges, Eggers and Aceto forbade her from discussing political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours, except to the extent necessary to advise the board whether such location would be in violation of state or federal law or other administrative rule of the State Board of Elections. If Campbell asked Hodges for information in a meeting, Hodges had to refuse to answer unless Eggers gave his okay. Sometimes he did, and sometimes he did not. Thus, Hodges’ years of wisdom and expertise were lost to the Board.

In October 2013, Eggers and Aceto proposed changes to past practices allowing voters who went to the wrong precinct to use so-called “transfer stations” rather than the more administratively cumbersome method of provisional ballots. In the past, the Board of Elections staff, rather than the Board members, made decisions about transfer stations. Hodges’ opinion in the matter was echoed by long-time attorney for the State Board of Elections, Don Wright, a Republican, who concurred with her that transfer stations were less cumbersome than verifying provisional ballots. Rather than accede to the prevailing wisdom, Eggers and Aceto followed their leaders. “Let’s see what will happen,” they said.

In November 2013, Eggers handed Hodges a so-called letter of reprimand to be placed in her personnel file. The letter requested that Hodges turn over her personal telephone records. If there were other matters in the letter, they remain undisclosed. Hodges found it necessary to hire a personal attorney.

Eggers and Aceto required that Hodges log all her phone calls.

They required that Hodges never meet a visitor in her own office but instead meet the visitor in the larger outer office.

Eggers and Aceto slashed the Board of Elections budget by $30,000; the Watauga Country Commission, also with a Republican majority, cut the budget an additional $30,000.

For an upcoming meeting, Eggers and Aceto planned a closed session on personnel issues, which became, apparently, the final straw for Hodges. When questioned, Eggers said the session was simply planned to see how things were going, a general discussion not normally permitted for a closed meeting on personnel matters.

Why would any board seek to curtail the effectiveness of a stellar professional and limit her expression of years of accumulated wisdom? Why would any board insinuate that its Director could not be trusted? If the Board of Elections members had real concerns that Ms. Hodges was untrustworthy, they should have made those concerns known and fired her. Of course, they had no such real concerns.

David Blust, a Republican member of the county commission, was quoted in a Jan. 27, 2015, article in the High Country Press as saying, “She’s always been there for me and always helped me get what I need. In fact, I went in there the other day, and lo and behold, I had it in about 10 minutes on my email. She and the staff have always treated me with kindness and respect.”

Why have these appointed officials worked so hard to intimate that Hodges was not trustworthy?

The only explanation that comes to me is that Eggers and Aceto had no grounds to fire Ms. Hodges, so they adopted a policy of harassing her relentlessly and diminishing her effectiveness, so that she would quit.

But why on earth would they want such a treasured employee to quit?

If someone does not want a non-partisan, incorruptible Director of the Board of Elections, perhaps they prefer a partisan Director susceptible to input from their political party, in this case the Republican Party. Perhaps they prefer a Director who will effect policies that will benefit Republicans in future elections. We have heard complaints about such Directors in other counties and in other states. In Ohio, for example, in 2004, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, misallocated voting machines, leading to unprecedented long lines that disenfranchised predominantly minority and Democrat voters by the thousands.

I am outraged and upset that partisan politics in Watauga County has fallen to this new low.

Apparently, we don’t care to protect the excellent public employees who work so hard to help make sure our elections are free and fair. Will we be happier when our elections become corrupted?

Ingrid W. Kraus, Watauga County Resident