Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde isn’t going to wait any longer for the county to resume control of the six-member staff of county employees who administer elections in the county.
In a letter to the Election Commission, he said he is withdrawing his delegation of authority — a constitutional authority given the judge — to hire, supervise and fire members of the staff. The judge may delegate the authority to others. The practices vary from county to county. County clerks handle the job in many places.
This follows controversy over partisanship current Election Commission Chair Evelyn Gomez has injected to the operation of elections in the county, particularly a push to staff more polls with Republicans and, lately, a push for voting centers that some critics have argued make it more difficult for people to vote.
I have been made aware of conduct and allegations of an abusive work environment created by a member of the Board. I have also been made aware that informal attempts to resolve these concerns have been fruitless.
For the last five (5) years, under my administration, Pulaski County has worked and will continue to work to improve the workplace culture and environment in Pulaski County Government. Conduct creating an abusive work environment is not. and will not be. tolerated.
The Election Commission has supervised the staff since passage of a county ordinance in 1993. Last week, the Quorum Court, because of resistance principally from the Republican minority on the administrative body and other Republican politiicans, delayed a proposal to repeal that ordinance and put the permanent staff under County/Circuit Clerk Terri Hollingsworth, who already has voter registration and some election duties.
Hyde takes the position that the ordinance relies on statutory law that allows the authority to be delegated to others, but only afterapproval of the the county judge. He wrote:
Accordingly, effective immediately, my office will assume the responsibility of personnel management of the Staff. The Board will, of course, maintain operational oversight and direction of Staff in fulfilling your duties.
This change will permit the Board to focus its efforts on its statutory duties to provide open, free, and fair elections, consistent with the sterling operations Pulaski County voters have come to know and expect. It will also permit the Staff to complete its assignments in an appropriate work environment and subject to the same
policies as all county employees.
Please contact my office if you have questions and should you encounter any performance or personnel issues, please communicate them directly to my office without delay.
Republicans control two of the three seats on the commission and have done so since 2015, when the majority of statewide officials were elected Republicans. Tension has arisen recently because of a variety of actions, principally by Gomez, a state parole revocation judge. The other Republican member, Kristi McKinnon, a lobbyist for a state executive agency, has also objected to a change of control of the commission’s permanent staff. By law, the commission would retain — and Hyde said he wouldn’t alter — power over conduct of elections and hiring of temporary election workers.
I’ve sought comments from Gomez, McKinnon and Joshua Price, the Democratic member. Given Gomez’s view of the Arkansas Blog, it’s possible I might not hear from her. McKinnon so far has responded only by telling the election Commission staff to inform me not to write to her at her state e-mail.
The Commission meets at 5 p.m. today on some routine election issues, including a special election for an open House seat. Perhaps the topic will come up.
UPDATE: Commissioner Joshua Price, the Democrat, comments approvingly:
“No employee of the county should ever feel as if they are in a hostile work environment. As election commissioner is not a full-time position, subsequently we are not able to supervise and manage the election commission staff on a day-to-day basis. The county judge’s decision to withdraw the delegation of his authority from the PCEC and take over the management of the staff will undoubtedly improve any existing issues and increase communication and efficiency among county agencies to best serve the voters of Pulaski County.”