Fulton board votes to fire election director

Fulton elections supervisor Richard Barron began in 2013. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Fulton elections supervisor Richard Barron began in 2013. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Fulton County elections board has voted to fire its director, causing confusion about who now runs a bedrock function in Georgia’s largest county.

It’s also unclear whether Fulton commissioners must vote to ratify the decision.

The 3-2 vote to fire Richard Barron came Tuesday, only 8 months removed from polls re-opening for city elections.

No replacement or interim director was named during the special-called meeting, which was hastily scheduled over the weekend after the board made a closed-door vote last week to fire Barron in apparent violation of Georgia’s open meetings law.

A county spokeswoman said officials realized the the vote was invalid shortly afterward.

ExploreFulton board set to meet following failed ouster of elections director

Now that the board has voted in public, the question becomes: What happens next?

The acting county attorney is reviewing whether Fulton County commissioners need to ratify the firing, and could be asked to give commissioners an opinion as soon as their scheduled Wednesday meeting.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said he views the election board’s firing as a “recommendation,” though other commissioners disagree.

Pitts said Tuesday that he was “anxiously waiting to review” the board’s rationale for firing Barron, and he is willing to add an agenda item to Wednesday’s meeting.

If commissioners overturn the firing, Barron would head back to work for a board that voted in the majority to get rid of him, which Pitts acknowledged “would not be the most ideal situation.”

Adding to the sensitivity of the situation, Pitts said, are lawsuits and legislation trying to hamper elections operations. Then there’s the Fulton district attorney’s criminal investigation of former President Donald Trump for asking Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes for him to win the state — a call in which the former president name-dropped Fulton County 16 times.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman sent out a news release Tuesday publicly disagreeing with the elections board and supporting Barron as director.

She said it wouldn’t make sense for her fellow commissioners to oust Barron after they all complimented him on a successful spate of elections.

The Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration met Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 and improperly voted to fire the elections director. (Photo: FGTV's YouTube)
The Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration met Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 and improperly voted to fire the elections director. (Photo: FGTV's YouTube)

Credit: FGTV's YouTube

Credit: FGTV's YouTube

Abdur-Rahman said she doesn’t like the names she’s heard floated for Barron’s replacement, saying some would “put us back to Jim Crow” times.

Elections Board Chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney was one of the two members who voted against firing Barron.

“We have made no provision for a new director,” she said. “Zero.”

The other vote in Barron’s corner came from board member Aaron Johnson, one of the two Democratic appointees. “I just think it’s going to cause chaos in our department,” he said.

The other Democratic appointee, Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, made the motion to fire Barron and sided with the Republican appointees to the board.

She said Barron impressed her early on, particularly with the expansion of early voting.

ExploreFulton quickly implemented lessons from June election debacle, emails show

“My decision was not based on 2020′s election, but 2017, 2018,” Nuriddin said.

Dr. Kathleen Ruth, a Republican appointee to the board, said her vote was “not political.”

“The department needs new leadership that can take Fulton to the next level, modernizing the elections process, making the county’s elections system more accurate and cost-effective and efficient,” Ruth said.

The five-member board is comprised of a chair appointed by the county’s board of commissioners and two appointees from each major political party.

When asked how she felt about Nuriddin’s vote, Abdur-Rahman said: “Disappointed is putting it lightly. I’m outraged.”

A poor track record

Fulton’s elections reputation isn’t great. The county has a history of complaints, fines and ethics violations.

The recent track record for elections directors isn’t sterling either. Barron took over in 2013 after Sam Westmoreland resigned while in jail for failing to follow the terms of two DUI arrests involving prescription drugs. An AJC investigation also found Westmoreland had fudged parts of his resume.

Before Westmoreland was Barry Garner, who admitted to inappropriate conduct in a sexual harassment investigation.

Since the start of 2020, Barron and his staff have run a half-dozen elections — most of them smoothly. But the June primary was not. Some people waited in sweltering heat for hours, many because they never received mail-in ballots after Fulton’s system was overwhelmed.

Following the primary, the State Elections Board approved a negotiated consent order with Fulton. Part of the deal was a monitor who observed and reported on the county’s handling of the presidential and Senate elections.

The AJC on Tuesday obtained two summary sections of the monitor’s report, which was referenced by two board members as a factor in their votes to fire Barron.

“At no time did I ever observe any conduct by Fulton County election officials that involved dishonesty, fraud, or intentional malfeasance,” wrote the state monitor, who spent 270 hours on the project.

But there were issues.

Fulton had trouble keeping up-to-date logs on absentee and early voters. The problem bordered on “systemic,” according to the report. There were also “persistent chain of custody issues” with absentees, and “poor managerial processes” by those directly beneath Barron.

Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann said Fulton has seemingly always had problems with elections. The county, with some help from grants, spent more than $40 million to fix the problems, she said. “And our elections are still controversial.”

Hausmann said she believes the law allows the election board to remove a director.

“Why even have a board if their work is not taken seriously?” Hausmann said.

AJC reporter Mark Niesse contributed to this report.

Story so far

Barron has led Fulton elections since 2013. He has weathered electoral embarrassments, but none as bad as the long lines and mail-in ballots that never got to voters in June. On Thursday, the elections board voted 3-2 to fire Barron in an closed-door executive session, which is seemingly a violation of Georgia’s open meetings law. The vote was deemed invalid. Then, at noon Saturday, the county scheduled a special-called elections board meeting for Tuesday, where the board voted 3-2 in public to fire the director.

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