County leaders reject recommendation to fire elections chief

March 3, 2021 GMT
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Fulton County Ga. election chief Richard Barron listens during a press conference as the presidential recount gets under way Wednesday morning, Nov. 25, 2020 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. County election workers across Georgia have begun an official machine recount of the roughly 5 million votes cast in the presidential race in the state. The recount was requested by President Donald Trump after certified results showed him losing the state to Democrat Joe Biden by 12,670 votes, or 0.25%. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)
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Fulton County Ga. election chief Richard Barron listens during a press conference as the presidential recount gets under way Wednesday morning, Nov. 25, 2020 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. County election workers across Georgia have begun an official machine recount of the roughly 5 million votes cast in the presidential race in the state. The recount was requested by President Donald Trump after certified results showed him losing the state to Democrat Joe Biden by 12,670 votes, or 0.25%. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

ATLANTA (AP) — The elected leaders of Georgia’s most populous county has voted to reject a recommendation to fire the county elections director.

The Fulton County Registration and Elections Board voted last month to fire Rick Barron, but a divided county Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted to reject that recommendation. The majority cited Barron’s positive performance evaluations as a reason for keeping him.

The elections board had voted 3-2 to fire Barron, with one Democrat joining the board’s two Republican appointees in the majority. The members of the election board who voted for Barron’s termination said it was necessary to address consistent problems with the county’s elections and to restore voter confidence.

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Fulton County includes most of Atlanta and is a Democratic stronghold. The county was heavily criticized after the June primary, when some voters waited in line for hours at polling places and some never received requested absentee ballots, among other problems.

The commission’s decision to reject the election board’s recommendation split along party lines, with the four Democratic commissioners in favor of keeping Barron in the job and the three Republicans opposing that decision.

Commissioner Bob Ellis, a Republican, said the decision to fire an elections director should rest with the elections board, not with the commissioners.

“I’m not asking us all to agree with the (election board) decision but instead to recognize that the power of that termination rests with them and regardless of our viewpoint of their decision, we should ratify it,” he said.

There is an inherent conflict of interest in having the elected commissioners overturn the decision of the independent elections board, Ellis argued.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington, a Democrat, argued that the elections board makes a recommendation but that decisions about county employees, including the elections director, are made by the commissioners.

“I am glad that we have this oversight ability,” he said.

The Republican commissioners argued that the election board has more direct contact with Barron since it supervises him directly and noted that the recommendation to fire him was made on a bipartisan basis. They also said the board of commissioners might be overstepping their authority.

Commission Vice Chair Natalie Hall, a Democrat, said an opinion from the county attorney affirms that the board of commissioners has the power and authority to accept or reject the election board’s recommendation. Hall argued that her support for keeping Barron was not rooted in opinion but in facts.

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“The truth of the matter is, based on the facts that I have in hand, that Mr. Barron received outstanding performance evaluations,” she said.

Barron said in a text message Wednesday that he would wait to comment until after next week’s county election board meeting. In a presentation to the commissioners after the vote, Barron talked about proposed improvements for the way the county handles elections.

Barron has said many of the problems stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic. Processing of absentee ballots was slowed after some staffers tested positive for the virus. The virus outbreak also caused poll workers to drop out, complicated poll worker training on a new election system and led to a significant number of polling places having to be changed or consolidated.

The secretary of state’s office, a consistent critic of Fulton County, opened investigations into the county’s handling of the primary and in October entered into a consent order with the county. The county agreed to make a number of changes and to have an independent monitor oversee compliance with the order.

The monitor, Carter Jones, told the State Election Board last month that he didn’t see any “illegality, fraud or intentional malfeasance” while observing Fulton County elections staff from October to January. But he said he witnessed “sloppy processes” and “systemic disorganization” and suggested a managerial shakeup was needed.