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Board of Elections working through multiple problems

The group that oversees elections in McDuffie County hasn't kept records of its meetings, is having trouble with member absenteeism and is currently operating without a permanent day-to-day director.

But members of the Board of Elections said they are working toward fixing those problems.

"There have been huge changes in the process of voting, which have caused huge amounts of stress on all of the elections officials and staff. Many of the problems have corrected themselves and will continue to improve as everyone becomes more comfortable with the new processes," said Board of Elections Chairman Bill Beckum. "I am proud of the fact that our problems have been ones which can be fixed."

The issues first became public during an April 3 County Commission work session. Then-Elections Superintendent Tiffany Neal asked commissioners to begin paying Elections Board members only for the meetings they attend, instead of a bi-weekly stipend paid regardless of meeting attendance.

The three-member board consists of a representative from both local political parties and a chairman. One of those members, Ms. Neal said, had not been present at meetings going back nearly two years, but that the member had continued collecting pay for serving in that capacity.

According to Ms. Neal's request, board members are currently paid $47.20 bi-weekly before taxes. The chairman is paid $54.47.

County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said the board member in question had been contacted and would be attending meetings now. In that case, he doesn't see any reason to change the pay scale.

"As long as that person starts showing up and continues showing up, we don't have a problem anymore," Chairman Newton said.

Local officials identified the absent member as Dexter Lovins, the Republican Party representative to the board. But Mr. Lovins said that he only missed meetings when he was told nothing important would be discussed.

"I would call her (Ms. Neal) sometimes and say é─˛Is there anything going on?' And she said é─˛There's nothing going on.' And I would come by here sometimes and speak to her ahead of time," Mr. Lovins said. "...As far as the meetings, if there's anything going on, I said I'd be here. I guarantee you."

Neither Mr. Lovins' version of his meeting attendance nor Ms. Neal's can be confirmed because - according to Acting Elections Superintendent Kelvin Williams - the board did not keep minutes of its meetings during Ms. Neal's tenure as elections superintendent. That is a violation of Georgia Code 50-14-1 (e) (2).

The law states: "The minutes of a meeting of any agency shall be promptly recorded and such records shall be open to public inspection once approved as official by the agency... Said minutes shall, as a minimum, include the names of the members present at the meeting, a description of each motion or other proposal made, and a record of all votes..."

According to Hollie Manheimer, Executive Director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, that law applies to local elections boards.

"Minutes, as described in the open meetings law, are one of the tools offered by law to enable citizens to monitor governmental proceedings," Ms. Manheimer said. "To not take minutes, when required, undermines the very purpose of the open meetings laws."

The problems for the Board of Elections deepened two days after Ms. Neal appeared before county commissioners. Ms. Neal resigned due to the discovery of some inappropriate material on her computer.

Since her resignation, the day-to-day supervision of the Office of Elections and Voter Registration has fallen on the shoulders of Ms. Neal's assistant, Mr. Williams.

Elections Board members are now working to fill the vacant superintendent slot. They met May 1, and - pending approval from County Attorney Sammy Fowler - have narrowed a field of six applicants down to two finalists with previous elections experience.

Mr. Williams is one of those finalists, as is former McDuffie County Elections Superintendent Phyllis Wheeler. Ms. Wheeler spent 11 years in McDuffie County before leaving to take the same job in Athens-Clarke County in 2002.

According to Morris News Service reports, Ms. Wheeler resigned from her post in Athens-Clarke County after only four months on the job because of problems with voting district assignments and a primary election. She is currently assisting Mr. Williams in the McDuffie County Elections office.

Web posted on Thursday, May 4, 2006

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