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Monday October 3rd, 2022 9:01PM

Hall Board of Elections sues county government over election director

By Mitch Clarke Director of Special Projects

The Hall County Board of Elections is asking for an injunction against the county government to stop it from taking any personnel action against Election Director Lori Wurtz.

Wurtz is serving a 90-day probation period after receiving a poor performance evaluation in February that cited problems during the 2020 election cycle. The 90-day probation period is expected to end in April.

The request for the injunction came in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hall County Superior Court. In the suit, the elections board is claiming county officials violated the state constitution when they amended the election board's enabling legislation in 2018 to make the elections director report to the county administrator instead of the elections board.

The election board also wants the court to decide who should supervise the elections director.

Ken Jarrard, the board's attorney, said he couldn't comment about specifics of the case, but he expressed confidence.

"This is just the beginning," he said of the process."It's time now to give Hall County the opportunity to respond."

The county board of elections consists of two members appointed by the local Republican Party, two appointed by the local Democratic party and a chairman appointed by the county commission. In those by-laws revised in 2018, it appears the board is given full authority to run elections and register voters and to maintain an elections office. But supervision of the election director is specifically given to the county administrator.

The original legislation, approved in 2014, gave full authority to the election board, the suit said.

The suit claimed the county commission didn't approve the changes at two consecutive meetings, something that is required by law to make such a change. The suit said the change was read on July 12, 2018, and July 26, 2018. But the suit alleged that commissioners only voted once, on July 12.

According to the suit, Tom Smiley, the chairman of the elections board, asked County Administrator Jock Connell earlier this year to allow the Board of Elections to have some input on the evaluation of Wurtz's job performance during the 2020 election cycle. The suit said Connell refused the request.

Her performance evaluation was conducted in February by Assistant Administrator Zach Propes. In that evaluation, obtained by AccessWDUN under an open-records request, Wurtz was given a "does not meet expectations" rating. Smiley has previously said he didn't believe the evaluation was fair, given the challenges during the election year brought on by the coronavirus.

In Propes' evaluation of her work in February, he wrote that she has a good understanding of the legal requirement of conducting elections. But he added, the "overall quality of work does not meet expectations."

He also cited ballot issues and other problems during the 2020 election cycle that required significant help from supervisors and others to resolve.

Propes did not name any issue specifically, but he was likely referring to, among other things, a problem with the education SPLOST ballots in March, when Hall County bond referendum questions were mistakenly added to ballots in Gainesville and Buford, which had their own questions.

Propes was also critical of Wurtz's ability to manage the election office.

"She is not a self-starter and often waits for specific instructions from her supervisors or other stakeholders before moving forward with a project," he wrote.

The election board released a 10-point rebuttal to the evaluation, saying Propes did not appropriately consider the challenging nature of the 2020 election cycle, which was adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The presidential primary, for instance, was postponed twice because of the pandemic.

Smiley said Propes was sending mixed messages by giving her a bad evaluation, while telling the public in a recent state-of-the county video that the elections office in Hall County has been run smoothly.

"It's just odd to me that our director, in my opinion, received such a harsh and unfair evaluation, while at the same time, in a public statement released to the citizens of Hall County, the election department was extoled with virtue," Smiley said.

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