GREENSBORO — The N.C. Court of Appeals has confirmed a Guilford County Superior Court decision that the county’s former board of elections director was underpaid.
George Gilbert’s salary should have been closer to the pay of others in that position in similar-sized counties in the state, Court of Appeals Judge Chris Dillon wrote in a ruling made public Tuesday. The other two judges on the panel agreed.
Gilbert said he was relieved this precedent-setting decision came down in his favor. Before this, there was no case law on salary requirements for election directors, according to the Court of Appeals decision.
“It’s very gratifying,” Gilbert said. “I’m glad it was unanimous. Hopefully, the county will accept it.”
A message seeking comment from the to the Guilford County legal department was not returned Tuesday.
Gilbert, who retired in 2013 after 25 years as elections director, filed the lawsuit against the Guilford County commissioners in January 2013.
Judge William Z. Wood of Guilford County Superior Court ruled in December 2013 that, given the size and voting population of Guilford County, Gilbert’s salary should have been closer to that of elections directors in similarly sized counties. Gilbert was awarded about $38,500.
His salary was $95,719 in 2012, making him the fifth-highest paid elections director in the state. The money the judge awarded covers back pay plus interest for 2010-12.
The elections directors in the two largest counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, were paid $112,227 and $110,230, respectively.
In his Superior Court trial, Gilbert showed evidence that, from 2008 until 2012, he had received the highest marks possible for his performance.
Gary Bartlett, the former executive director for the N.C. Board of Elections, testified on Gilbert’s behalf at the Guilford County trial.
Bartlett, relying on a 1987 letter from the N.C. attorney general, made recommendations for salaries of elections directors, according to the Court of Appeals ruling. Bartlett said Guilford County was similar in complexity to Wake and Mecklenburg counties, and Gilbert’s salary was much lower than it should have been.
Gilbert also showed information that Guilford County ranked first in election complexity among the seven largest counties in the state, and he had the most years of service. He was paid at a midpoint in the salary range, with five other elections directors paid more than him.
Gilbert said Tuesday that he was lucky he was financially stable enough to afford to take the matter to court. He said he knows of other elections directors who were not paid what they should be.
“Hopefully, counties will read this ruling and change the way they do business,” Gilbert said. “This gives my peers a much firmer ground to stand on.”
Counties are allowed some discretion in setting the salary of the elections director, but the salary “shall be commensurate with the salary paid to directors in counties similarly situation and similar in population and number of registered voters,” according to the state statute. The salary also must be a minimum of $12 per hour.
In the ruling, the Court of Appeals said it was “not persuaded” by Guilford County’s argument that it was only required to pay the elections director a minimum of $12 per hour because there was no county similar enough to Guilford to have a salary to compare.
The court said Guilford County’s argument that each county has discretion to set its own salary for the position is correct. However, the salary must meet the parameters of the statute.
“The defendants did not present any evidence showing how the plaintiff’s salary complied” with the statute, the ruling said.
The Court of Appeals admitted in its ruling that it had few former rulings on county directors of elections to look to when examining this case.
“There is little case law interpreting ... and no case law explaining the salary requirements,” Dillon wrote in his ruling.
He said counties should consider other factors, such as their county’s electoral situations, the strength of political parties and dissension among them, the transient population and the number of registered voters.
Contact Sarah Newell Williamson at (336) 373-7076, and follow @snewell_NR on Twitter.