By Jesse Wood
Feb. 11, 2015. The Watauga County Board of Elections met on Wednesday, and the major topic of discussion – at times heated – was Watauga County Elections Director Jane Ann Hodge’s upcoming retirement.
Hodges, who confirmed she was retiring in January for medical reasons, read a prepared statement and was teary-eyed throughout most of the meeting because of kind words from those in attendance and those on the board.
Here is her entire prepared statement:
“I am excited to announce my retirement as Director of Elections for Watauga County. Tuesday, June 30, will be my last day.
After almost 29 years of being director, it is time for me to use my time to show my mom, husband, children and grandchildren how much I love and appreciate them.
I love elections, democracy and Watauga County. This was not just a job; it was a commitment. My love for democracy, for fairness, my respect for voters and just for the process itself required a lot of dedication, but with all that I have felt a sense of fulfillment. I, with the support of my staff, have tried to make Watauga County better with each successful election.
I have a sense of pride and feeling of fulfillment in knowing what we have done has helped make democracy survive.
I want to say thank you to my staff, to the poll workers and to the different boards that I have served under. I hope each of you will continue with the passion that I have in serving not only the voters but democracy itself.
I hope we have done well. We have gone from paper ballots and punch cards to optical scan. We have worried about dimpled, hanging and pregnant chads.
Thank you Watauga County for this opportunity and a life fulfilled. I feel that I have been able to do what I was meant to do.”
After Hodges’ statement and a round of applause from board members and supporters in attendance, Watauga County Board of Elections Chair Luke Eggers read a resolution recognizing Hodges’ “many years of service” for Watauga County.
Hodges began as director of the Watauga County Board of Elections on Dec. 1, 1985. When she retired by the first of July, she will be just several months shy of three decades at the helm.
After Eggers handed the resolution plaque to Hodges, Kathleen Campbell, the only Democrat on the three-member board that features Republicans Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, stood up and read another prepared statement.
She noted her admiration for Hodges “being so strong in dealing with the concerted campaign on the part of the [Eggers and Aceto] and others in the county government and Republican Party over the past year and a half, to harass her into quitting her job.”
Campbell reflected on the first meeting, which made national media and went viral on YouTube, when Eggers and Aceto voted to change her job description and “attempt to control whom she met and talked to and to imply that she wasn’t trustworthy enough to meet with the public in her own office, forcing her to stand in the middle of the entry room to talk to anyone who was not on the board or the staff.”
She maintained that Hodges wasn’t merely retiring and that before Hodges announced her retirement, Eggers put a personnel action on the agenda [for the current meeting] that concerned Hodges’ job.
“Although [Eggers] claims otherwise, and Jane has too much dignity to complain in public, this was quite clearly intended for her, and she took it that way and resigned,” Campbell said.
Campbell added that Hodges helped anyone who came into the office – no matter their party affiliation – and that her dedication and skill in maintaining fair elections will be tough to match by her successor.
“I hope you have a wonderful retirement, but the county will sorely miss you and I am very troubled about how someone coming in so soon before a national election is going to be able to handle the task that you have done so well,” Campbell concluded.
After about a sentence into her one-page statement, Eggers interrupted Campbell and said, “Are you just going to make a political statement?”
Campbell retorted and Eggers relented.
Following her statement and announcement of a retirement party at Boone United Methodist Church in June, Eggers and Aceto looked at each other and Aceto began to speak.
Aceto said it was “very unfortunate” and that he was “disappointed” that Campbell continues to “politicize” Hodge’s retirement. Aceto said it was “100 percent” Hodge’s decision to retire.
Aceto added that not once has he or Eggers “done anything to Jane’s reputation or to tarnish anything about her history serving as director of the county.”
“Today should have been about Jane. It is about Jane,” Aceto said. “I thought your politicization of this day speaks volumes of kind of your antics the whole time you have been on the board. You’ve been very political. I do not approve of it, and I think today was just unfortunate that you chose today to read a prepared statement and not speak from the heart on what she’s offered to this county.”
Aceto said that from here on out the goal is to find a successor, which he said won’t impact the state of the county elections.
“In my opinion nothing is going to change whether it is director Hodges or somebody else,” Aceto said.
Shortly after this back and forth between Campbell and Aceto, the floor opened for members of the public to speak and several spoke, all of them praising Hodges.
Pam Williamson, a well-known local Democrat, recounted a story in the ‘90s when the Democrat Party went all “jihad on Jane Ann,” doing similar things to Hodges that Eggers and Aceto did such as attempting to monitor calls and office visits.
Williamson said that other Democrats stood up for Hodges when this was happening and said this “wasn’t right and wasn’t fair” because Jane Ann had been an impartial person.
“So when you guys talk about partisanship, you might ask your own party why they didn’t step in when you treated Jane Ann the way she was treated,” Williamson said.
She said Hodges treated her just like anybody else. She could be “sweet as can be or “mean as hell.” Williamson recounted a story of when Williamson was mouthing off during a recount in 2000 when there was a five-vote difference between a Republican and Democrat candidate for the county commission.
“Jane Ann looked at me and said, ‘Pam, you can just get in the back of the line,” Williamson said to laughter from those attending.
Williamson then challenged the board to make a unanimous decision regarding whomever is to become Hodge’s successor.
Former Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson, a Democrat, talked about how revered Hodges was around the state in the elections community and also about Hodge’s integrity.
“Jane Ann is the most professional person I’ve ever come in contact with,” Clawson. “Everybody who came in was treated with same kindness and the same professionalism. Everybody, everybody who came in to your office.”
In addition to Williamson and Clawson, a two others spoke in favor of Hodges in addition the last speaker.
That was Jenny Church. Church ran for mayor of Boone in 2013 as an unaffiliated candidate. She handed Hodges a care package earlier in the meeting and during public comment, told Hodges, “I love you and am very proud of you and I’m glad that you are leaving on your own terms.”
Then her tone changed.
“Jane Ann said in her own words that she’s been through worse boards than this, and I don’t know that these guys [Eggers and Aceto] deserved the bullying they received today and I think some of you should be a little embarrassed about trying to take today away from her and make it about something else.”
After public comment, Eggers made a motion to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters. Campbell asked why.
Eggers responded that it was about personnel: “I am going to ask Jane how everything is running in the office.”
Campbell responded that she didn’t think this reasoning would fit under the N.C. General Statutes.
Here is what is listed under N.C. General Statutes pertaining to personnel matters:
“To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.”
Eggers relented, and closed session was struck from the agenda.
Then Eggers made a motion, which passed unanimously, directing Hodges to fill out evaluation forms for her office staff.
See video of entire meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KS2nsfIcJ8&feature=youtu.be