WENTWORTH — One week after dismissing its senior deputy director and coming under fire from political candidates, the Rockingham County Board of Elections voted Thursday to suspend public comment from its board meetings until after the Nov. 3 election. And by Friday, they'd hired a new interim director.
The board voted 4-1 last week to oust Amy Simpson, a Democrat who served in 2016 as interim register of deeds, from her role as senior deputy director of the elections board office.
And on Monday, seven candidates from the county petitioned the North Carolina Board of Elections to take immediate control of the local elections office.
The six Democrats and one Libertarian wrote to NCBOE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell that the office was dangerously understaffed and could not effectively deliver a "fair and trusted election.''
Among the candidates' chief concerns was why the board had not hired a director to replace Tina Cardwell, who retired in April. After Simpson's termination, a deputy director, hired in June, had remained as the board's sole full-time staff member.
And the board had recently hired between four and 10 temporary staffers daily to help with the pandemic-era election season that's brought a huge influx of absentee ballot requests and ballots.
On Friday, the board met to hire former longtime director Jan Odell of Reidsville as interim director of the election's office.
Candidates want public voices heard
The board's move Thursday to temporarily remove public comment from agendas — three days after candidates asked the state for help — drew criticism from some of the candidates and one open government scholar.
Members met in a closed executive session Thursday before the five-member bipartisan elections board voted unanimously to approve the measure.
And while it is not illegal for an elections board to eliminate such a public platform, "public comment is good for democracy and elimination of public comment time is bad for democracy,'' said Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University.
"It's that simple,'' Fuller said. "The public has a right to voice concerns to elected and appointed officials, and many times the best way to do that is to speak directly to officials at their regular meetings.''
Candidate Wally White, a Democrat running for the N.C. Senate District 30 seat, hand-delivered the request for NCBOE intervention on Monday and bristled at the latest board action.
“I think it’s a shame that a board, who’s job is to record citizens’ opinions in the form of our votes, would choose to silence those same citizens from speaking in their meetings,” White said via email on Thursday.
Candidate Ann Brady, a Democrat running for a seat on the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners, also signed the letter to the NCBOE and had problems with the board's public comment decision.
"I do not understand why the board would act to silence those who wish to publicly express their opinions. Public comments were limited to three minutes; certainly allowing comments did not lengthen their meetings significantly.''
Board Chairman Royce Richardson and board members Toni Reece, Jeff Parris, Bonnie Purgason, and Leanna Lawson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
NCBOE officials did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment on the candidates' request for takeover or the state's assessment of the local board's readiness for the election and early voting, which begins Oct. 15.
In addition to White and Brady, candidates Amanda Bell, Democrat for N.C. House, District 65; Kelli Boyte Jones, Democrat for Rockingham County Register of Deeds; Jeff Johnson, Democrat for the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners; Ophelia P. Wright, Democrat for the Rockingham County Board of Education, District 2; and R. Michael Jordan, Libertarian for the school board's District 3, signed the NCBOE letter.
Meanwhile, the local elections office last week had seen nearly 5,000 absentee ballot requests come in, Richardson said last week.
Mock election held
Shortly after she was fired, Simpson said she was concerned about how the office would be able to conduct a planned Oct. 1 mock election.
Sources close to the board said Saturday two mock elections have recently been successfully completed by office staff and Laura Dell, a representative from the NCBOE, who was on hand for the tabulation accuracy test.
County GOP continues to weigh in on Simpson's dismissal.
Rockingham County GOP Chairman Diane Parnell last week posted detailed information about Simpson's termination online.
The board had discussed the reason for Simpson's dismissal during a closed session in order to abide by privacy law surrounding personnel issues.
Asked how she obtained her information about why Simpson was fired, Parnell submitted a press release this week saying that county GOP officials prompted Simpson's ouster.
They reported to board members actions by Simpson that they deemed as partisan and in conflict with her duties as senior deputy clerk, Parnell said in the release.
Simpson had no comment.
State and local election officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding Parnell's allegations.
Contact Susie C. Spear at firstname.lastname@example.org, (336) 349-4331, ext. 6140 and follow @SpearSusie_RCN on Twitter.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!