Texas official tapped to clean up Fulton elections

Fulton County’s elections office, which bungled two elections last year and whose last director resigned while jailed, could have a new leader this month.

Members of the elections oversight board say they found someone who has been through tribulations in running countywide polling operations: Rick Barron, currently the elections administrator of Williamson County in central Texas. Barron was at the center of controversy recently, the extent of which some Fulton County officials were not fully aware.

Three months before Barron was tapped to lead the Fulton office, the Texas county’s Republican Party tried to have him fired as elections chief. The party claimed he illegally booted a poll overseer out of a precinct and mishandled a small town’s school board contest, which is being done over on Saturday.

Barron was cleared of wrongdoing, arguing in a hearing that much of the blame lay with the GOP’s own appointees working at polls. Political parties play a larger role in Texas’ elections operations than they do in Georgia.

“We have a responsibility when it comes to training,” Barron, 46, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a phone interview, “but we have no control over the people they give us.”

The Texas county’s elections commission voted 3-2 to keep him on. He’s been the administrator in Williamson County, a suburb of Austin with about 456,000 people, for six years. The county has 248,000 registered voters, compared to more than 567,000 registered in Fulton for last year’s presidential race.

All five members of the Fulton Registration and Elections Board said they knew Barron ejected a poll manager for alleged inappropriate behavior, but they didn’t know about the botched election.

“I’m aware that he was exonerated,” Republican board appointee Mary Norwood said. “In elections, a lot of things are contentious. I would not expect anyone who has been involved in elections for a long time to have not had issues at some point.”

The Fulton County Commission will vote next week on whether to affirm Barron’s appointment. He’s been offered a starting salary of $125,000, and he has the unanimous support of the elections board.

» Embarrassing moments in Fulton elections

Previous coverage: » State: Election documents altered » Elections director resigns

“You want someone who has been through fire,” Chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney said.

It’s a crucial appointment — perhaps the most important decision the elections board will make this year. A succession of bungled elections and embarrassments has shaken public confidence in Fulton’s ability to run polls. The department is frequently cited by critics as evidence that the county government can’t effectively manage a domain stretching more than 70 miles with nearly 1 million people.

The new director must make rapid changes in time for November municipal elections, including the Atlanta mayor’s race. The department also remains under investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office over alleged mismanagement in last year’s presidential and primary contests.

“That culture needs to change,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said. “They’re going to need somebody strong to do that. They’re going to need someone that the board will support in making those decisions.”

Sandy Springs has become so wary that it’s paying a consultant $110 per hour, with a $32,780 maximum, to monitor Fulton’s poll workers during voting. The city wants an “added layer of self assurance” before it certifies results, a spokeswoman said.

Cooney said the elections board looked at 16 candidates, one of whom was offered the job and backed out because of a family illness. Turnover on the elections board — three of its five members are new — also slowed down the hiring, the chairwoman said.

The board also wanted to be meticulous. The last time it chose a permanent director, it became a case study in how not to hire an elections chief. The board hired one of their own, former Fulton County Democratic Party Chairman Sam Westmoreland, who was unqualified and resigned in September while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two prescription drug-related DUI arrests.

Unlike Westmoreland, Barron will come into the position with prior experience running an elections office. He has also worked for two private elections equipment vendors and worked in Austin’s elections office.

Documents obtained by the AJC show that the full extent of Barron’s recent troubles in Texas didn’t come up in his interview with the Fulton elections board. Barron said no one asked about the re-vote, and he assumed the board knew about it.

Nancy Rister, the Williamson County clerk and vice chairwoman of the elections commission, said that while Barron was working to toss out the poll manager — known as an elections judge in Texas — another Republican-appointed manager in the small town of Jarrell handed out more than 100 wrong ballots. A school board race came down to three votes and the losing candidate sued, prompting a judge to order a new election.

Rister said Barron should have been held accountable because his office is responsible for training, and he had no legal authority to eject an elections judge.

“I can understand why he’s looking for another job,” Rister said. “He knows people are watching him.”

But Williamson County Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Kaye Carter, also an elections commission member, wrote a letter of recommendation for Barron.

“One of the ways I know he did a good job,” Carter said, “is that some of the Republicans think he’s a Democrat, and some of the Democrats think he’s a Republican.”

She attributed his recent problems to a personal vendetta by Rister and other Republicans.

Barron said the elections judge he removed, former county Republican Party Chairman John Gordon, verbally abused a county employee at the precinct. Gordon has a history of bad behavior, Barron said, including playing a trumpet while Democrats were voting.

Gordon denies yelling at the worker, who he says Barron sent to the precinct to spy on him, or playing trumpet while voters were at the precinct.

Barron also angered a religious group last year when an elections worker asked a voter to cover a T-shirt that said “Vote the Bible.” He said managers have the right to decide whether someone is violating Texas’ electioneering law.

Williamson County Republican Party Chairman Bill Fairbrother said Barron is a sharp administrator who has run into troubles over “protocol and personalities.”

“Rick is an intelligent man,” said Fairbrother, an elections commission member who voted to fire him. “He knows how to conduct elections. He knows the equipment. Given the right environment, he has the potential to be an excellent elections administrator.”

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