Commission decision to not pay Board of Elections riles some

Matthew Strother

March 5, 2014

A decision Tuesday by the majority of County Commissioners to pay nothing to members of the Board of Elections and Registration has upset some members.

“I think it’s ridiculous, all other (election) boards are paid,” said BOER member Lonnie Hollis. “Even counties that are much smaller than (Troup) compensate their board members. We put a lot of time doing work into that, and I wish we would at least consider some type of compensation. It’s a sad situation for our elected officials.”

BOER member Ellen Gilmore said the move may violate the state law that created the board.

“I don’t know the legal definition of compensation, but in normal English language, compensation is not zero,” Gilmore said. “It could’ve been one penny.”

Gilmore said the issue also was how long it took Commissioners to vote on setting compensation, since the board was formed in January 2013. The local legislation passed by the state in 2012, SB 520, forming the board states that “compensation for the members of the board shall be fixed by the Board of Commissioners of Troup County.”

“It has been an ongoing issue because the board of commissioners refused to act in regard to the law,” Gilmore said. “They now have acted. Whether or not they have acted by fixing compensation at zero remains a legal question.”

BOER member J.C. Cameron said: “My thought is why did it take the Commissioners 14 months and 4 days to make the decision.”

Board member A.R. Ransom said the board is supposed to be paid according to the law, but even if the county has decided not to pay, he still considers serving on the board a community service.

BOER Chairman Jane McCoy said she was glad to just have clarification on the long-standing matter, even if it was set at 0.

“When I agreed to volunteer, I was under the assumption that I would be volunteering,” McCoy said.”… I was honored when I was asked (to be on the board), and the reason I accepted is that hoped we would be able to set good example for the community through citizenship and engaging the community through the elections process.”

BOER member Gloria Watson said she agreed to serve on the board without expectation of compensation, and the decision doesn’t surprise her.

Pay is “not high on my list,” she said. “I’m just trying to serve on the board, be of a little help and learn more about Troup County.”

McCoy said that “pay or no pay we’re going to go forward and do everything we can to embrace openly public elections and engage the public in elections.”

BOER member Fred Higgins declined to comment this morning.

Commissioners voted on the matter at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting. The issue was on the agenda for the Feb. 18 meeting, but tabled by commissioners for further review. Tuesday, Commissioner Tripp Foster made a motion proposing a $100 per member per month compensation, not to exceed $1,200 annually for each member.

No commissioners seconded the motion. After Chairman Ricky Wolfe declared the motion failed for lack of a second, he asked for a substitute motion.

Commissioner Buck Davis made a motion to pay the board $0. Commissioner Morris Jones quickly seconded.

Foster asked Davis why the pay should be set at 0.

“Because we have 132 other board members that don’t get paid, and you’re going to start a precedence of a domino effect that we’re not budgeted to take care of at this point,” Davis said.

“… Many other boards around the state of Georgia have an elections board that are paid at way much higher than what I recommended for consideration by this board,” Foster said.

Foster said his recommendation of $100 per month was “mid-stream” among most other boards and paying per month rather than per meeting would deter the potential of abuse by calling additional meetings to collect more.

“This is a very important board that has to do with keeping the integrity of elections and keeping them within the confines of Georgia state law,” Foster said.

Wolfe called for a vote, which passed for the $0 compensation. Foster was the sole opposing vote.

“They can’t find a few dollars to pay the Board of Election members what Ricky (Wolfe) and Tod Tentler have called ‘one of the most important boards in Troup County,’” Bill Gilmore, husband of Ellen Gilmore, asked in a letter to media following the meeting. He asked how the county can appropriate $41,680 to the Center for Strategic Planning and $30,000 to the Circles initiative in the current budget, but not compensate the BOER members $1,200 per year.

Foster was upset with his fellow Commissioners’ actions, which he said violated the state law establishing the election board.

“I, as a member of this Board of Commissioners, will not blatantly and willfully violate the laws of the state of Georgia,” Foster said. “And this board demonstrated today that they did just that.”

Foster pointed out that no commissioners made any recommendations at the Feb. 18 meeting for a pay rate for the Board of Elections. He made a motion to table the vote for further review.

“I had data supplied to me, that I verified, from approximately 15 counties in the state of Georgia, and I looked at that data and the compensation that was involved with this data and specified what the chairman of that board was enumerated and what the members were enumerated per meeting,” Foster said after the meeting. “… The reason I made this recommendation to this Board of Commissioners of $100 per month with a capacity of $1,200 per year per member for the Troup County Board of Elections and Registration is because I felt that based on Senate Bill 520, the law specifically says we shall compensate that board. You cannot compensate zero, because it contradicts what the law says.”

County Manager Tod Tentler said SB 520 was written based on the Spalding County Elections Board’s legislation, which has board members that work with elections staff, or a “working board.” After the Troup County BOER formed, members changed its bylaws from assisting the elections supervisor and staff to overseeing elections supervisor and staff, making it an “oversight board,” Tentler said.

Jones said when the BOER opted to be an “oversight board” instead of working with elections staff, it necessitated moving an elections employee from part-time to full-time status, an expense that otherwise could have covered the board’s compensation.

“This board saw fit to amend its bylaws as a non-working board,” Jones said, adding that the county is still going through “growing pains” with its move to the elections board process.

Jones said with the county looking toward it’s budget for the next year now, it wasn’t the right time to approve payment. He said he would be willing to consider payment for the BOER as a budgeted item.

“We’re not even a year old,” Davis said of the BOER after the meeting. “We don’t even know if it’s going to continue to function or what.”

He said he would be willing to look at payment again in the future, after the BOER has been in place longer, overseen more elections and the proposed local legislation to remove the two partisan appointments was voted on by the state.

Commissioner Richard English said that members of other boards approached him and said if the Commission voted to pay the BOER, other boards would likely ask to be paid as well.

“Where do we start, and where do we stop,” he asked.

In addition to the board’s pay, Foster also objected Tuesday to the Commission’s acceptance of its Feb. 18 meeting minutes, because of items commissioners voted at that meeting that were not on the agenda.

During a discussion of the Board of Elections at the Feb. 18 meeting, Wolfe suggested to Commissioners to make a motion that was not on the agenda to eliminate the Republican and Democrat appointees to the BOER, which was improper, Foster said.

“It was not on the agenda, it was not publicized to the public,” Foster said. “As far as legalities are concerned, I’ll let the law decide that.”