Clash with GOP may boost elections candidate

Revelations about Rick Barron’s recent travails in Texas make him a better pick to lead Fulton County’s troubled elections office, not a worse one, say several elections board members who chose him.

Although they weren’t aware that a small-town election held on his watch had to be redone because of a mistake, board members are urging the Fulton County Commission to hire him as the county’s new Registration and Elections director.

The error was made by a poll manager appointed by the Williamson County, Texas, Republican Party, not Barron, said elections board member Stan Matarazzo. Political parties play a larger role in Texas’ elections operations than they do in Georgia.

Barron has been elections administrator in the affluent Austin suburb for the past six years. He had to defend his job in January when the local GOP tried to have him fired — mostly because during the November election he and three law enforcement officers booted a Republican-appointed poll manager accused of berating a county employee.

At another precinct in Jarrell, Texas, a rookie poll manager handed out more than 100 wrong ballots to voters in November, and a school board race came down to three votes. The losing candidate sued, and a judge ordered a new election.

“Now that we know about it, it wouldn’t change my vote,” Matarazzo said, explaining that most candidates they considered during an eight-month search had controversy in their background. “There’s just nobody that has a clean slate, and it’s partly because of politics.”

Commission Chairman John Eaves, a Democrat, said Friday that Barron has his vote, though it will take at least three more votes to make his hiring official. Barron’s run-in with Republicans may boost his chances with a panel where Democrats have a 5-2 majority.

“If you’re making them mad, you must be doing something right,” said elections board member Leslie Small, a Democratic appointee.

Fulton’s elections board did a poor job of verifying the resume of its last director, Sam Westmoreland.

The next director must turn around a department that has struggled to run smooth elections, deal with multiple pending investigations by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and conduct November municipal elections under intense public scrutiny.

Westmoreland, a former elections board member, had no prior experience managing an elections office, and an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found he fudged parts of his work history, claiming he had experience supervising large staffs. An independent consultant’s report attributed subsequent election mishaps to his poor managerial decisions.

The elections office also failed to delve deeply into his arrest record, and Westmoreland wound up resigning in September while incarcerated for failing to follow sentencing terms from two prescription drug-related DUI cases.

Board members — three out of five of whom are new and were not involved in hiring Westmoreland — insist they were thorough this time.

Matarazzo, a Republican appointee who was involved last time, conceded that the board may not have asked all of the right questions or called enough people in Texas to find out about the Jarrell problem.

But if the commission votes Barron down, Matarazzo said, it could throw the board into a tailspin, forcing it to start over and threatening the county’s ability to conduct smooth elections this year, including the Atlanta mayor’s race.

Eaves, the County Commission chairman, called Barron “battleground tested” and said he sees no reason to buck the election board’s recommendation. Democratic South Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards said he’ll look into what occurred in Williamson County before deciding, but he puts no stock in allegations made by Republicans.

Barron, who considers himself politically neutral, said he thought the elections board knew the Jarrell election was being done over, though it didn’t come up in his interview. He said he has run 30 successful elections in Williamson County, making major changes in procedures and equipment.

“When I first arrived here, I think there was an imbalance in how things were done,” he said. “All I’ve done is balance it out, and it has angered the party in power.”

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