story by Tabatha Gardner, special to The City Wire
BENTONVILLE— Members of the group asking voters to decide whether Benton County should allow retail alcohol sales are confident in their decision to hire National Ballot Access.
The group, Keep Dollars in Benton County, hired the Lawrenceville, Ga., based National Ballot Access (NBA) after an extensive search and because of the company's performance history, according to Marshall Ney, group spokesman.
NBA has managed between 50 and 75 petition drives in the last five years, said Edee Baggett, the company's president and CEO.
Many of those jobs were "wet-up" petition drives similar to the one the company is now hosting in Benton County, Baggett said, noting that many of those petition drives led to positive outcomes on election day.
NBA gathered signatures for 26 "wet-up" petitions since 2009. Each of those drives led to the initiative being placed on the ballot and all but four passed. The company also helped get the wet/dry issue placed on the ballot in Boone County, Ark., in 2010. Retail sale of alcohol in Boone County was approved by voters in the Nov. 2010 election.
Despite the company's success with petitions, there are many less than favorable allegations against the company. Those allegations range from using untrained petitioners and gathering duplicate signatures.
A Feb. 7, 2008 report from Oklahoma Secretary of State M. Susan Savage detailed several issues with a petition drive led by NBA in that state.
Some of those problems include petitioners signing the petition themselves several times each, duplicate signatures with slight variations in either the first or last name and 92 signatures who listed the addresses 415 Archer Ave., 415 W. Archer, or 415 Ocher St., in Tulsa as their home address.
Baggett said the claims listed in Savage's 2008 report were actually detailed by her and other NBA staffers when they submitted the petition to the Secretary of State's office.
"We were defrauded by our petitioners," Baggett said of the Oklahoma petition.
Savage is no longer in office and could not be reached for comment.
Other allegations against the company are listed on various websites and blogs, many of which are unsubstantiated.
Baggett said she is aware of those blogs and informs each of her clients prior to them signing contracts with NBA.
"Many of the blogs are against an issue we did and not us. I actually know the people who run them and I've called them about it but they never respond," Baggett said, referring to the blogs as "propaganda."
"I tell (potential clients) everything about what they'll find on the Internet because, to me, it's all bogus," Baggett said.
Ney said Keep Dollars in Benton County was aware of some of the allegations against NBA before a contract was signed.
“But, we have no concerns,” Ney said.
He said NBA was hired based on its track record.
"There a number of firms like NBA, but in our view, very few of them have the breadth of experience and proven success they have in terms of attracting petitioners nationally, organizing a team and performing on sensitive matters such as the wet/dry issue," Ney said.
Baggett said there are around 12 petitioners gathering signatures in Benton County. Each of them has been thoroughly trained to ensure the signatures they are gathering will stand when checked by the county clerk in August.
Jessica Coyle of Bella Vista said she had a good experience when she signed the petition last week. The petitioner asked if she was a registered voter in Benton County and if she had previously signed the petition prior to allowing her to add her signature to the list.
"It would be nice to live in a wet county and I'd like the chance to vote for it," Coyle said of her decision to sign the wet/dry petition.
Tena O'Brien, the county clerk for Benton County, said Keep Dollars in Benton County will need to gather near 40,000 signatures to have the wet/dry issue placed on the ballot in November. Keep Dollars in Benton County has until Aug. 8 to get the signatures turned into her office.
Baggett said there is already a lot of excitement around the petition and the reception to it has been above expectations.
Ney said that while Keep Dollars in Benton County is not commenting on the number of signatures gathered at this point, the group is very happy with the results.
"The reception to our petition drives has been excellent, but there are still many more signatures to gather," Ney said.
The group posts the locations throughout the Benton County where petitions are being signed each day on its facebook page.