Sebastian County Election Commission, County Clerk dispute election ‘mistakes’

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

There were fireworks at Thursday's (Feb. 6) meeting of the Sebastian County Election Commission as Chairman Lee Webb addressed the need to avoid mistakes in the upcoming May primary and November general elections.

Webb highlighted past mistakes of the Sebastian County Clerk's office, an office lead by Sharon Brooks. Brooks, a Republican, who announced Jan. 30 she would seek re-election to a third term later this year.

"In the past, we've had some poll book issues that I really want to try to get addressed," Webb said. "They were all fixed for these elections that we're going to talk about."

Webb brought up various mistakes dating back nearly two years, according to documentation provided to the media:
• May 22, 2012 Primary: Illegible pages;
• June 12, 2012 Runoff: Missing precinct at the Mansfield polling site;
• June 12, 2012 Runoff: Missing ballot designations, which are required for runoffs;
• Sept. 18, 2012 School Board Election: Missing precinct in Lavaca school books;
• Nov. 2, 2012 General Election: Sections missing from Greenwood Church of the Nazarene election roster book and polling place book;
• Dec. 10, 2013, Greenwood Special Election: Precinct designations not in alphabetical order; and
• Dec. 10, 2013, Greenwood Special Election: Delayed poll book delivery.

Brooks immediately took issue with Webb's assertion that the issues needed to be addressed, adding that any mistakes were fixed without any impact to the elections in question.

"If this was a problem back then, why wasn't this brought to our attention? We work with the (election) coordinator, and the coordinator should work with us. …We have not known of any of these problems."

In discussing some of the past issues, Webb brought up an issue with the Fort Smith School Board, in which precincts were placed within the wrong school district. But according to Brooks, the issue was not with her office.

"It was during the redistricting process and we talked to (Fort Smith School District Superintendent) Dr. (Benny) Gooden. They have to give us their boundaries, their maps. The maps hadn't been given to us in time."

Following the adjournment of the Election Commission meeting, Brooks went into further detail defending her office against accusations of mistakes, explaining that again that all issues were caught and addressed before it could affect elections. She also said she and her staff were able to coordinate with the Fort Smith School District once the district provided maps of precincts.

Brooks said she has worked closely with Election Coordinator Jerry Huff in the past and would continue to in the future to ensure that mistakes are either not made or are caught prior to poll books or ballots making their way to polling sites.

"I'm not sure what his reasons are. I would think if there are any problems, that they would come to us and talk to us. …I would hope that we continue to work (together), because we're here as a unified body here."

She said voters should have confidence in her office's ability as May 20 and November 4 approach.

For his part, Webb said he was upholding his responsibility to Sebastian County voters by bringing the issue up in a public meeting and making sure the matter was dealt with four months prior to the May primary election.

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"It's not an issue once we find the problems and get them fixed. Fortunately we had found all the problems before they get to the polling sites, with the exception of one. Which ultimately the poll books are not the Election Commission's responsibility, but when the Election Commission feels the responsibility to the voters to have everything correct and we have to go back and double check every poll book that we send out because of the inaccuracies that we've had the last two years — which we never had prior to that, never had an issue, and these are just the ones that we found — and we feel that it's our duty to the voters and the poll workers to have everything right."

In other business, the Commission:
• Heard a proposal from Webb that would eliminate 13 polling sites from the current roster, saving the Election Commission about $13,000 each election. Should the proposal be approved at a later meeting, the number of polling sites would be about 31, though the figure could change based on a variety of factors; and

• It was announced by County Judge David Hudson that David Mansell has been hired to replace Jerry Huff as Election Coordinator. Mansell's hiring occurred following a November 2013 meeting that nearly ran afoul of Arkansas' open meetings laws after Hudson attempted to hold an executive session that included individuals, such as Brooks, who were actually barred from participating in the executive session by state law. It was only after protest by The City Wire that Hudson limited the meeting to himself, the Election Commission, and individual applicants, following .C.A. § 25-19-106, section 2a, which states, "Only the person holding the top administrative position in the public agency, department, or office involved, the immediate supervisor of the employee involved, and the employee may be present at the executive session when so requested by the governing body, board, commission, or other public body holding the executive session."

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