By Jesse Wood
The Watauga County Board of Elections met on Thursday evening, and discussion swirled around how to go about selecting a new director and who that director will be.
Earlier this year, veteran Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges announced her retirement, effective at the end of June.
The Watauga County Board of Elections is comprised of two Republicans, Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, and one Democrat board member, Kathleen Campbell.
While Eggers wanted to appoint former Watauga County GOP Chair Matthew Snyder as the new director, Campbell preferred to conduct an official search that would at least span the state for qualified candidates for the non-partisan position.
Aceto, who said after the meeting that he had some potential candidates in mind, didn’t name any names during or after the meeting.
Campbell suggested that Hodges contact all the elections directors and deputy directors in the state and let them know of the job opening. Campbell suggested advertising the position, conducting interviews, narrowing down the candidates either individually or as a board – and then selecting the most qualified person for the job.
“I don’t really think that is necessary,” Eggers said, stating that time is of the essence to find a candidate that can learn from Hodges in her remaining weeks on the job.
Campbell, who dominated the discussion, responded that it is only March and that Hodges isn’t retiring until the end of June. Campbell said that the position could be advertised over the next two weeks and a candidate selected after interviews thereafter – sometime before mid May, which leaves several weeks before Hodges’ exit.
“We have this much time to go for the best possible person. It’s really wrong to take this person by yourself off the top of your head when you are serving 47,000 people in this county,” Campbell said. “This is not an odd suggestion that I am asking for a search. This is standard. It would be like if I said to you, ‘Now when you get up in the morning, be sure you pee before you put your clothes on.’”
While Campbell said it was “very good” of the nine local folks – including Deborah Greene, a prior conservative and independent who has bounced in and out of the Republican Party, and other local Democrats, such as Jill Reeves, Marjorie Holder, Nancy Henry, Susan Adams and others – to volunteer their applications, Campbell said the local board might possibly find a “state-certified” person to head the Watauga County Board of Elections by conducting an advertised search across the state.
“I think under the circumstances, particularly where we are going to hire this person and almost immediately thereafter work on a general presidential election that it is best we get someone who can hit the ground running,” Campbell said. “That is what I propose.”
Directly after Campbell’s spiel, Aceto spoke up briefly, “I think the state has a great training program in place, and Director Hodges, kindly enough, is retiring. I think it’s important to use the word retiring, instead of quitting, because I don’t think Jane is a quitter.”
Aceto noted that because Hodges has been the only director in the past three decades, the county hasn’t had a formal procedure in place to hire a new director.
Aceto also cited N.C. General Statutes, which sets parameters on who can be appointed to the director position:
“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.”
Campbell responded, “That is the minimum that you have. It doesn’t mean that’s what you should aspire to. I don’t know Mr. Snyder. He may be the most wonderful person in the world, but I do know he was chair of the Republican Party, which makes him innately partisan. I think it would be better to give someone a chance who would be very fair. A lot of the trouble in the last year and a half, the reason we’ve had trouble is because there is a perception in a large populous of the county that you guys are splitting one foot on the scale when it comes to voting procedures.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Campbell concluded, “I cannot even conjecture what your reasons are for not wanting to [do a search] other than you want to put in some partisan person.”
Campbell then said she was going to direct Hodges to advertise the position to her colleagues. She said she would look at the results of the search and if Aceto and Eggers wanted to look at the results, they could.
After about that, the three members were done talking about this issue.
Three people spoke during public comment and kind of gave a hiring 101 lecture to the board:
Deborah Greene, who put in a resume, observed:
“In most business you do put out a request for resumes. You advertise. What I am surprised is I looked on the county website but I didn’t see it there. That bothered me. We may have people right here working for the county who would like to do this, like to put in a resume, but may feel like they shouldn’t cause it hasn’t been advertised to the public. I think most business people do. I have been in charge of hiring people, and the firm I worked for advertised within first and then outside. I think it’s common practice in Watauga County to do that. I am surprised. I am really surprised.”
Harvard Ayers, who was a professor at ASU for 44 years and has worked for a number of environmental organizations, such as founding Appalachian Voices, said that when a position came available within the anthropology department or at another organization, a departmental meeting would be held, listing what they would like to see in a candidate.
After that meeting that would last for about an hour at the most, Ayers said the position would be advertised and candidates interviewed before whittling down the field and honing in on the best candidate. Ayers said that this was the case for most positions besides “more than just someone answering the phone.”
“We would let a wide range of people know that we wanted to do this. It seems to me as important a job we have now with a person with 30 years experience, we really want the best possible person for this job and not choose someone willy nilly,” Ayers said. “I suggest you follow what Kathleen had to say and be professional about this. This shouldn’t be a partisan appointment. This should be a job hiring of a person up against other people for qualifications and I think to do anything less would really be a travesty.”
Pam Williamson, an active Democrat in Watauga County, spoke last. Williamson wondered if Bill had some names to recommend. She also said she agreed that the board should try to get someone “really qualified” and that it is the norm to let people know any job is open.
“I am aware that the statutes say that this is an appointment. That you don’t have to do that, but the question would be, ‘Why in the world wouldn’t you?’” Williamson said.
On a different point, Williamson said, “Believe it or not I don’t’ really mind what the party is of the person, but what concerns me is Mr. Snyder, whose name I just heard tonight, I witnessed him at one of these public meetings. There is a picture [on HCpress.com (see below)] of him squabbling with a citizen as to why there shouldn’t be an ASU voting site. I just wonder, that would make me wonder if that was a particularly good qualification.”
Williamson also wondered why County Attorney Four Eggers was sitting in on the meeting. Four Eggers – who sits on the county commission meetings twice a month; happens to be the chair’s brother; and is on the executive committee of the Watauga County Republican Party – hasn’t sat in on an elections meeting since at least the current board was sworn in in the summer of 2013.
Chair Luke Eggers said that he asked his brother, through County Manager Deron Geouque, to sit in on the meeting after differences between him and Campbell in the last meeting as whether or not to discuss personnel issues in closed session.
“We need legal advice,” Chair Luke Eggers said. “I didn’t pass the bar to do legal statutes, and neither did you. And that’s the purpose of this to make sure we do a closed session personnel meeting legally.”
Campbell felt that the decision to invite Four Eggers should have been done as a board – and not individually by Chair Luke Eggers. She also questioned a “conflict of interest” with the attorney and chair of the board being brothers.
Four Eggers said that Geouque advised him to come to the meeting and that he was legally allowed to be at the meeting as the county attorney. Chair Luke Eggers even said during the training session with the State Board of Elections at the beginning of their term, the board members were advised to utilize the county attorney when in doubt and during closed session.
“The county attorney has a conflict of interest,” Campbell said.
“There is no conflict of interest. You can scream it all day long but there is not,” Luke Eggers replied.
“Yes, but there is,” Campbell responded, just before Luke Eggers motioned to go into closed session.
The board then went into closed session for personnel matters and later came back out, adjourning without taking any action.
Once person is eventually selected by the county board members, the name will be submitted to the State Board of Elections for appointment.