What was supposed to be a ‘routine and non-confrontational’ vote on Tuesday to confirm the hiring of a temporary part-time employee at the Etowah County Board of Registrars office became a debate that ultimately ended the hire completely.
By a vote of 3 to 2, county commissioners voted against hiring Jerry Smith as a temporary employee to assist the Board of Registrars with ongoing election challenges. His duties reportedly lasted until July and included administrative duties such as computer work and organization.
Administrative Director Shane Ellison requested the hire, based on a request from Probate Judge Scott Hassell on the recommendation of Secretary of State John Merrill.
“There was a new appointment to the Board of Registrars last week, and hiring (of) Smith would be a way to help them catch up with all the issues they’ve had,” Ellison said. “We have hired them as temporary help at our expense in the past at least twice.”
Commissioner Craig Inzer, who opposed the resolution to hire Smith, said it shouldn’t be the county’s job to help fix mistakes made at the state level. He said he doesn’t want to invest county money and effort in things he thinks the state should fix on its own.
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“The last two months have seen nothing but problems from the Board of Registrars, and I don’t think we should be spending our county’s money hiring someone to fix the state’s mistakes,” Inzer said. “If the state needs help, then the state and Secretary Merrill must pay for it.”
Commissioner Tim Ramsey said: “I want to vote to table it so I can do more research on how, but since we can’t do that I have to vote ‘no’. I just don’t have enough information to make a concise decision as to whether or not this is a decision the county should make.”
Inzer added that if the hire is approved, the county would be held accountable for anything that goes wrong with the remediation process, as they would be responsible for Smith’s salary.
“I take no responsibility for anything our employee does in his office when he is not the one taking control,” he said.
Joey Statum, a “yes” vote, said while he understood where Inzer and Ramsey were coming from, he didn’t know if it was legal to refuse to hire Smith for the job.
“We have always hired a part-time person from them in the past due to high workloads during elections, including the upcoming general election,” he said. “The State of Alabama is requesting this assistance during this time, and I’m voting ‘yes’ because I’m not sure we have the right to deny this request the way we do. It’s not possible. – be not legal.”
Jamie Grant voted ‘no’ to the measure, while Johnny Grant voted ‘yes’.
“We should do what’s best for the county and our citizens,” Johnny Grant said.
Inzer replied, “John Merrill can do what is best for the citizens of Etowah County.”
“For me, that means the state will send the person to help fix the mistakes, but we’re the ones who have to pay,” added Jamie Grant. He is embroiled in one of the election challenges, for the District 29 House seat, as the failure to update voter information from the legislative redistricting has led some voters to report that the races that should have appeared on their ballots were not.
Since Smith’s hiring took effect on June 3, the commissioners will work on a way to pay him for the time he actually served. He was to be hired at an hourly rate of $11.42 which would come from the dedicated general fund account at the Office of Registrars.
The commissioners also wanted to make it clear that there was nothing personal against Smith, it was the principle of who would pay for their time and effort that stymied the resolution.
“It’s nothing at all against Jerry Smith,” Inzer said, “We’ll pay him for what he’s done and John Merrill can find the rest if he needs him.”
The commissioners also voted in favor of providing funds deemed “necessary” to the employee pension system. This funding would cover a one-time lump sum payment to eligible retirees and family members of deceased retirees.
It would also allow them to comply with SB 229 passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2022, which gave them a grant to benefit those who retired in the system. This payment will be made in October.
“Although it says the chairman of the commission will execute the document on this, Johnny Grant feels it is an ethical standpoint for the CAO to execute the document because it is part of this retirement system,” said said county attorney James Turnbach.
The commissioners also approved a resolution to declare insolvents on unpaid taxes from 2021 and earlier years, that is, when a business’s property taxes go unpaid. Starting this year in October 2021, the probate judge will not be allowed to issue business licenses to those who are in arrears with taxes.
The commissioners then approved a memorandum of understanding between them and the State of Alabama regarding federal aid exchange funds. These funds, in accordance with the provisions of the 2019 Rebuild Alabama Act, will amount to $400,000.
The meeting concluded with an in camera session to discuss ongoing litigation. No other action was taken outside of the session.