By Jesse Wood
At Wednesday’s Watauga County Board of Elections meeting, the GOP-majority nominated – or at least intended to nominate – former Watauga County GOP Chair Matthew Snyder to succeed veteran elections Director Jane Ann Hodges, who is retiring at the end of June after nearly 30 years.
Before this would become official, State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach will have to approve the appointment, but there are also questions as to whether or not the vote to nominate Snyder is valid.
On Wednesday, Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, both Republicans, motioned and seconded Snyder’s appointment.
But before the board went to a vote, Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the three-member board, started discussing why she didn’t feel Snyder was the right candidate for the job.
After back-and-forth discussion for about 20 minutes, Aceto “called the question.” Then Eggers said “all in favor.” Aceto and Eggers voted aye, in favor of the motion, and Campbell voted no.
Then people in the audience began to murmur that a vote on the actual appointment never took place as the meeting was adjourned.
“You all realize you never voted on the motion,” Ian O’Keefe, a local Democrat, finally said.
“Just the question,” said another person, finishing O’Keefe’s statement.
By then Eggers was on his way out the backdoor of the commissioners boardroom in the Watauga County Administration Building, where the meeting was held. Aceto lingered around, but even then it was too late to vote again without the numbers needed to pass a motion.
On Thursday morning, State Board of Elections Public Information Officer Josh Lawson said that he was aware that the vote to appoint Snyder is possibly invalid. Lawson said that he spoke with Hodges, the current elections director, and also received an email from Campbell, the Democrat board member, and others about last night’s proceedings.
“So the question is there. Did the board vote, the majority vote in support of the candidate?” Lawson said, adding that he is aware of video of last night’s entire meeting that HCPress.com recorded.
Lawson said that if the office of the SBOE receives a letter of nomination for Snyder, then Strach would review any evidence – minutes, recordings, etc. – of the meeting to be sure the vote was taken properly.
HCPress.com reached out to faculty members within the UNC School of Government that are experts in local government (legal and procedural) without an immediate response on Thursday.
Dr. Paul Gronke is a visiting professor within Appalachian State University’s Government and Justice Studies department. Gronke noted that he wasn’t familiar with how closely the local board of elections follows Roberts Rules of Order, which he said were more of a guideline as opposed to a law. After learning what happened at last night’s meeting, Gronke said that it sounds like the majority voted to call the question – and not to appoint Snyder.
“In more informal situations like this, when someone says, ‘I move that we call the question,’ the chair will say something like ‘any objections’ and if there are none (everyone agrees that they’ve talked enough!) then you automatically move to the final vote,” Gronke wrote in an email. “That sort of sounds like what was happening. The Board may decide to amend the minutes to reflect that understanding or have another vote. But it’s unlikely anything will change, at least that’s how it sounds, and anyone objecting would have to decide whether or not there is anything gained by forcing the Board to vote again.”
So, if the vote is deemed invalid, then the board would just have to schedule a special meeting or vote again when it next meets in May.
Once the nomination for Snyder is official, then it will move to State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach for approval of the appointment. SBOE spokesman Josh Lawson said that Strach would have 10 days to either appoint Snyder or deny Snyder’s appointment.
“However, it is not the practice generally to decline these,” Lawson said.
Lawson said that Strach would deny an appointment if it violated state or federal hiring practices or if the candidate doesn’t meet the requirements to serve as outlined in N.C. General Statutes:
“A person shall not serve as a director of elections if he:
- Holds any elective public office;
- Is a candidate for any office in a primary or election;
- Holds any office in a political party or committee thereof;
- Is a campaign chairman or finance chairman for any candidate for public office or serves on any campaign committee for any candidate;
- Has been convicted of a felony in any court unless his rights of citizenship have been restored pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 13 of the General Statutes of North Carolina;
- Has been removed at any time by the State Board of Elections following a public hearing; or
- Is a member or a spouse, child, spouse of child, parent, sister, or brother of a member of the county board of elections by whom he would be employed.”
In July, Strach denied a director’s appointment in Duplin County. The N.C. Legislative Black Caucus at the time noted the “racial overtones” engulfing the controversy of this appointment. Lawson said that Strach denied this appointment because of “concerns over federal hiring practices.”
Back in Watauga – whenever the GOP majority noted its affinity for Snyder at March’s meeting and was ready to nominate him on the spot, Campbell said that the board should hold at least a state search for qualified candidates and not choose someone, as one public commenter described it, “willy nilly.” Campbell suggested looking at number of candidates, whittling the field and selecting the most-qualified person for the job.
“I don’t really think that is necessary,” Eggers said last month.
In March, Campbell said she had nine resumes for the job that locals gave her after hearing about the job opening through the “grapevine.” Campbell passed those resumes on to Aceto and Eggers to review – just as they forwarded Snyder’s resume to her.
While Campbell said that it is standard to advertise a position for fulfillment, Lawson, the SBOE spokesman, said that a county can use discretion as to whether it wants to have an open process for public applications, promote someone internally or select an individual they have in mind. As long as the boards don’t violate open meeting rules, hire someone statutes don’t allow or violate state and federal hiring practices, they can choose a director however it sees fit.
While Lawson noted that Forsyth County Board of Elections held a nationwide search for its director of elections, prior State Boards of Elections have nominated the executive director of the SBOE similar to the way Snyder was nominated.
Lawson said that Strach, who was appointed by a Republican-majority board, and her predecessor Gary Bartlett, who was appointed by a Democratic-majority board, were appointed without the public-application process.
“They did so based upon a motion, questions at the meeting and a vote,” Lawson said.
The Rest of the Wednesday’s Meeting
After routine business and the announcement of Jane Ann Hodges “Outstanding Director” award for the state, the board heard from members of the public during the public comment portion of the meeting before discussing Snyder’s appointment and resumes that Campbell received. Only three people spoke: Deborah Greene, Bobbie Byrd and Ian O’Keefe.
Greene, who submitted an application for director and is a conservative, said that she wasn’t interviewed by anybody but Campbell and wished see had the opportunity to be interviewed by the board members in the majority.
Byrd said she was speaking on behalf of Matt Snyder.
“I have had the privilege of working with Matthew Snyder for several years and also in the past I worked in the board of elections. I know that Matt is highly qualified. He’ll be very fair and honest and he’s good with numbers and statistics. He’s prompt and very qualified,” Byrd said.
O’Keefe, who has worked with the Watauga County Democratic Party, said the board should hire a nonpartisan person to oversee local elections and not someone who was the former chair of the local Republican Party.
“People who have, for instance, held positions within Democratic or Republican party probably shouldn’t be considered for this. And secondly ask to look for someone who has experience working for elections. There are people around this state and even farther around this nation who do have experience working for elections,” O’Keefe said.
After public comment, Eggers immediately made a motion to nominate Snyder, and Aceto seconded the motion. Then came discussion for about 30 minutes.
Campbell reiterated that a search process should be undertaken and how partisan she felt Snyder’s appointment would be. Campbell also talked about the two applicants she received that seemed “most qualified” of the bunch.
“Since we didn’t do a search we don’t have a lot people with a lot of hands on experience,” Campbell said.
One of those was Nancy Henry, a realtor who has lived in Watauga and Ashe County for 11 years. She worked as a precinct officer in Ashe County for eight of those years. She also ran for Ashe County Board of Commissioners as a Democrat in recent elections. When she lived in California prior to moving to the High Country, Campbell said Henry also operated an elections precinct in her house in a rural area near Orange County for four elections.
She also talked about Deborah Greene, who served as precinct judge on the ASU campus for two elections. She was a prior treasurer of Watauga County Republican Women’s Club. In 2012, she ran for the Watauga County Board of Education as unaffiliated. She owns a pension consulting business.
Campbell said she met with Snyder recently to interview him for the job.
“I thought that Mr. Snyder was a very nice man,” Campbell said.
She noted that Snyder’s background is in film production and is currently involved in sales and marketing of digital websites. Campbell said that the “only” time Snyder worked in elections was when he worked as an assistant precinct worker in 2010.
“He really has no relevant experience for this job,” Campbell said.
She also said that when Snyder was chair of the Watauga GOP, the local party was fined by the state board of elections for continually filing late. She cited other irregularities of compliance on campaign finance reports.
At this point, Eggers jumped in and said that this is the “treasurer’s job” and as such shouldn’t be “lumped on Mr. Snyder.” The treasurer while Snyder was chair happened to be Aceto.
Campbell concluded her lengthy statement by saying, “They want to appoint a highly-partisan individual, the former chair of the Republican Party, because they want to turn our local board of elections into an arm of their political party. This is a shame and it’s inexcusable. The only hope for the voters of Watauga County is that the director of the State Board of Elections will step up to the plate and refuse to allow this appointment.”
Aceto responded that he spoke to several people but didn’t want to share their names because of current employment. He thanked all of those that applied.
As for Greene, Aceto noted that he played “phone tag” with Greene.
“There were several items that stood out to me about [Greene’s] resume. Highly influential activism in local government – to me there is no place for that for me in this director decision,” Aceto said to an uproar from the audience.
Aceto also added that he wouldn’t select Greene because she tried to get Eggers and Aceto kicked off the board. To which, Greene replied, “Point taken.”
Aceto also said he spoke with Nancy Henry.
“Her timeline to me wasn’t adequate for the director position. She wanted a short timeline and she said probably in couple years she would be retiring. I would like to have someone in this position for years to come,” Aceto said.
(Henry told High Country Press this morning that the prior statement from Aceto was a “bold-faced lie … I would never commit myself to this kind of job and just do it for just two years!”)
Aceto said that even though the position wasn’t advertised, the job opening was “well publicized” through press coverage of the board’s always-controversial meetings.
“People are aware of this job,” Aceto said.
In saying why he chose Snyder, Aceto noted what he looked for in a candidate – technological skills, longevity at the position, ability to communicate and being well organized.
“So I think citizens of Watuaga County are the ones who are winning today with Matt Snyder as director, and Mr. Chairman, I would like to call the question,” Aceto said.
Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque said that Hodges’ current salary is $60,167. Geouque noted Hodges’ 29 years of experience and said that recommended salary for the incoming director would be less than that. Geouque said there is no current recommended salary for the incoming director as the State Board of Elections hasn’t appointed a successor to Hodges.