A Monday (Nov. 11) meeting of the Sebastian County Election Committee nearly ran afoul of Arkansas open meetings laws after the commission attempted to enter an executive session to consider applicants for a soon to be open position of elections coordinator with officials present who were not legally entitled to be included in the executive session.
A.C.A. § 25-19-106, section 2a, states, "Only the person holding the top administrative position in the public agency, department, or office involved, the immediate supervisor of the employee involved, and the employee may be present at the executive session when so requested by the governing body, board, commission, or other public body holding the executive session."
At issue in the meeting was Sebastian County Judge David Hudson's request that County Clerk Sharon Brooks participate in the executive session, even though she would not have direct supervision or hire/fire authority over the elections coordinator.
The City Wire, the only media outlet to attend the meeting, objected to the inclusion of the county clerk's office in the executive session based on The City Wire's understanding of A.C.A. § 25-19-106.
Hudson said a memo stating the responsibilities of the election coordinator granted the county clerk access to executive sessions based on the clerk's interactions with the election coordinator.
"The County Clerk, as the individual who is ultimately responsible for voter registration and supplying ballots to absentee voters upon lawful request, shall also have input into the supervisory process of the Election Coordinator," the memo read. "The County Clerk shall be invited to all meetings of the Election Commission, and the Clerk's input as to the election process shall be sought by the Coordinator, who is expected to work together with the County Clerk in order to assure that all of the duties which must be completed for a successful and fair election are fulfilled."
The memo also states that the county judge us ultimately the person who "by law, has responsibility for hiring and supervision of the election's coordinator, the Election Coordinator is necessarily subject to the direction of the Election Commission with respect to duties."
The memo was not passed as an ordinance of the Sebastian County Quorum Court and holds no legal authority, instead it was essentially a "gentlemen's agreement" according to Election Commissioner David Damron.
The City Wire, in its objection to the executive session inclusive of the county clerk, said it would remain present in the room where the executive session were to take place should Brooks be allowed to participate in the session.
Attempts by Hudson to reach Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Shue, who provides legal guidance to the judge's office and the Quorum Court, were unsuccessful during the nearly 20 minute discussion regarding the legality of an executive session including the county clerk when she has no official hire/fire authority or legal supervisory authority over the position in question.
The commission did float the idea of conducting the interviews in a public meeting as well as delaying the interviews of candidates until Shue could provide a legal opinion on the matter. Both were ultimately rejected once Brooks said she would recuse herself from the proceedings and Hudson determined that he and Brooks could interview candidates separately.
In all, 33 applications were submitted for the position that will open with the retirement of Elections Coordinator Jerry Huff next year. Of the 33, the list was narrowed by the commission to William Mccullom, David Mansell and Sheryl Oliver for interviews.
No decision on candidates were made pending further interviews by Hudson and Brooks.
In other business, the Commission voted to ask the Sebastian County Quorum Court to consider allocating additional funds for a third early voting site that were not originally included in the commission's budget.
The funding totals about $18,000 – about $6,000 would be funds to be used by the county clerk's office with an additional $12,000 to be used by the commission.
No site has been definitively selected, though proposals floated by the commission in August included the Dallas Street Branch of the Fort Smith Public Library and the Ben Geren Tornado Shelter.
According to Hudson, the Quorum Court will be briefed on the request at a budget study session Thursday evening (Nov. 14) with action to be taken on whether to grant the additional funding at a another meeting, likely next week.
The commission will separately request about $2,000 from the court to pay current Election Coordinator Jerry Huff during a training period for his replacement. The funding will only pay a part-time salary without benefits, which will total about 100 hours.