Fulton leaders reject firing of elections director, appoint new elections chair

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

The Fulton County Commission has rejected the firing of county elections director Richard Barron — sending him back to answer to a majority of an elections board that does not want him.

And now, that elections board will have a new leader: commissioners voted to appoint former Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan as a replacement for chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney, who resigned this week due to a prolonged illness.

The elections board manages policy, but the director runs day-to-day operations.

While Barron’s fate appears settled, commissioners continue to disagree on whether they or the elections board has final say on hiring and firing the director. Barron was retained by a party-line vote, with all Democrats on the commission voting to keep him and Republicans voting for his removal.

The Republicans cited advice from a former county attorney in arguing that elected officials should not have a say in the employment of the person responsible for running county elections. It is unclear what advice the interim county attorney gave to commissioners during their multiple hours of closed door executive sessions, and the ordinance does not appear to address how to remove an elections director.

“The board of elections makes a recommendation,” Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said. “They make decisions about the elections, however about Fulton County employees they can only make recommendations.”

Barron has been in charge of Fulton elections since 2013.

On Wednesday, Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann said commissioners have put Barron is a horrible position.

“I regret terribly that a person who I like, I actually like Rick Barron, is put in this position,” Hausmann said. “He doesn’t deserve that, but we should be respecting and affirming the hard decision that the board of registration and elections made on behalf of the citizens of Fulton County.”

Republicans and Democratic commissioners have both voiced displeasure about Barron’s performance at different times.

Barron was at risk of a bipartisan firing 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. But Democratic commissioners seem to have been satisfied by Barron’s performance in the general and runoff elections after June.

The elections board voted 3-2 on Feb. 16 to fire Barron.

Barron’s employment has been in limbo ever since, because of a stalemate over the issue on the seven-member Fulton County Commission the next day. The gridlock on the vote was caused when Commissioner Natalie Hall said she didn’t have enough information to make a decision.

On Wednesday, Hall voted to keep Barron and told him: “I do want to apologize for the witch-hunt against you.”

Throughout the two-weeks of uncertainty, politicians have lobbed accusations back and forth — with Democrats saying Republicans are unhappy over the result of the presidential and senatorial races, and Republicans saying the election had many issues, including an absentee-by-mail process vulnerable to fraud.

Cooney, who resigned as chairwoman of the elections board on Tuesday, was one of the two votes to retain Barron. Now, Wan leads the board.

Wan is the first Asian American politician to win a seat on the Atlanta City Council. The Stone Mountain native currently lives in Morningside and is executive director of the nonprofit Horizons Atlanta summer program.

Wan takes over the rest of Cooney’s term, which ends June 30, 2021.

Wan was an Atlanta councilman from 2010 to 2017 until he ran for Council President and lost to Felicia Moore. If reappointed, Wan would oversee citywide elections later this year that feature Moore’s challenge to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Story so far

Barron, who was retained as Fulton’s elections director by a 4-3 vote of the county commission Wednesday, was heavily criticized by both Republicans and Democrats after the June primary that featured long lines and mail-in ballots that never got to voters. The elections board voted 3-2 to fire Barron on Feb. 16. His fate has been in limbo ever since, as the commission argued over whether the responsibility for firing him should rest with the elections board or county commissioners.

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