Fulton getting new elections chair amid confusion over elections head firing

Fulton County elections director Rick Barron holds a briefing at State Farm Arena as absentee ballot processing neared completion. (John Spink/john.spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Fulton County elections director Rick Barron holds a briefing at State Farm Arena as absentee ballot processing neared completion. (John Spink/john.spink@ajc.com)

The Fulton County elections board will get a new chairperson at a tumultuous time for a department responsible for overseeing the bedrock democratic function in Georgia’s largest county.

Elections Chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney has resigned, and the Fulton County Commission will consider appointing former Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan to head the county’s elections board, according to the agenda for a Wednesday meeting,

Fulton’s other top elections position is also in flux — with elections director Richard Barron’s fate uncertain after the elections board voted last month to fire him. The ongoing question ever since is whether the county commission has the ultimate say over Barron’s employment, and commissioners are expected to take up that issue during Wednesday’s meeting.

This is all happening only 7 months away from polls re-opening for city elections.

Cooney, former deputy city attorney for Atlanta, wrote she is stepping down due to a prolonged illness. “I consider it an honor to have served Fulton County,” wrote Cooney, who had voted to keep Barron.

Wan — the first Asian American politician to win a seat on the Atlanta City Council — would take over the rest of Cooney’s term, which ends June 30, 2021.

The elections board manages direction and tone, but it also oversees the elections director running day-to-day operations.

The elections board voted 3-2 on Feb. 16 to fire Barron. The next day, the seven-member Fulton County Commission made no decision on the firing because of a party-line stalemate — with three Democrats voting to save Barron and three Republicans voting to sack him.

Neither side could get to a majority because Democratic Commissioner Natalie Hall wouldn’t vote, saying she didn’t have enough information to make a good decision.

Barron was heavily criticized after the June primary had some voters waiting in line for hours, many because they never received mail-in ballots after Fulton’s system was overwhelmed.

Democratic Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said Tuesday he hopes Barron stays, despite the commissioner scolding Barron in public months ago.

“I may have even supported the call for his removal after the (June) election,” Arrington said, “but the November and January elections pretty much ran as smoothly as they could. There’s always some problems here and there.”

Republican commissioners want to fire Barron in part because they feel his future should be decided by the independent elections board, citing guidance from former county attorneys.

Republican Commissioner Bob Ellis now wants the county to formally give the election board sole authority to fire an elections director. He said his intention is for a resolution on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting to apply to Barron’s firing, who has been elections director since 2013.

Anything could happen with Ellis’ resolution, but it is a sign that the county code isn’t clear about how to fire an elections director.

The code explains how to hire an elections director but gives no process for firing the person in that position. That has left many confused about whether commissioners even should have voted on Barron’s firing following their discussion during a nearly two-hour executive session.

Ellis’ resolution asks the board to recognize the “the inherent conflict of interest and damaging impact to election integrity of having the Board of Commissioners engaged in the discipline, sanction or termination of the Election Supervisor.”

Fellow Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann summed it up Tuesday: “My name’s on the ballot, I shouldn’t be in charge of how the process works.”

The process varies from county to county.

Lowndes County Manager Paige Dukes said their elections board members — who are appointed by the same grand juries that hear Valdosta-area murder cases — have full autonomy to hire and fire the elections director.

Glynn County Spokesman Matthew Kent said that, around Brunswick, the Board of Commissioners’ only input with hiring or firing an elections director is they get one of the five appointees.

Another item on the agenda that Hausmann is not happy about is “recommendations ... for a plan of improvements” to the elections board, by Democratic Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.

“We got politicians in Fulton County that are overstepping their authority and getting involved in the elections. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be run,” Hausmann said.

The Wednesday meeting begins at 10 a.m. and can be viewed on YouTube at: http://bit.ly/WatchFGTV.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Fulton County Commission says elections director will keep his job for now