Macon-Bibb asks judge to dismiss lawsuit over elections supervisor selection

The Macon-Bibb Board of Elections sued over Mayor Lester Miller’s planned committee to select next supervisor candidate


Liz Fabian

The Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections has been searching for a new elections supervisor since January.

A legal showdown over who has the authority to select the next Macon-Bibb County elections supervisor candidate appears to be at a standstill less than a month before the November election.

This week, attorneys for Mayor Lester Miller and county commissioners asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Board of Elections on Aug. 8 or grant a judgment in favor of the county.

In early September, the elections board also requested a hearing before the judge to argue for a preliminary injunction blocking Miller from appointing a bipartisan committee.

The board maintains it is their role alone to choose a candidate, according to the 1969 referendum that created what was then known as the Bibb County Board of Elections.

Earlier this year, the county didn’t consider the board’s first nominee, Canetra Ford, after questionable posts surfaced from social media accounts bearing her name.

Initially, the board reluctantly agreed to Miller’s selection committee proposal to choose Republicans and Democrats from the board and county commission to go over resumes and identify a candidate. The board later hired an outside attorney following the mayor’s comments to The Macon Newsroom that he did not have to include them at all.

On Sept. 15, the elections board nominated Thomas Gillon, the county’s elections officer who has been serving as acting supervisor since the retirement of Jeanetta Watson in January.

Miller has indicated he was not going to consider a nominee during the pending legal battle. Thursday, Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections Chairman Mike Kaplan told the Macon Newsroom the board has no immediate plans to drop the suit because they have heard nothing from the mayor concerning Gillon’s nomination.

Mike Kaplan

Kaplan said the board will wait to see what the judge says, even if that takes years.

“It doesn’t really matter to us because Tom’s doing such a great job and we’re all ready,” Kaplan said. “The mayor thinks it’s a hassle to us, I guess. … It’s not fair to Tom… because  we asked the mayor to appoint him as acting superintendent, you know, when this first happened and he wouldn’t do it. … The fact of the matter is, this could have all been settled in January and Mr. Miller chose not to do so. And there are consequences for actions.”

The legal battle is worth fighting, Kaplan said, to preserve the role of the elections board in nominating supervisor candidates to then be approved by the mayor and county commission.

“We’re appointed people. We’re doing the right thing, I can assure you,” Kaplan said. “We’re not doing the politically correct thing. We’re doing the right thing. We have no political agenda and this is protection not from Mr. Miller, but from the mayor’s office. We don’t want it happening again.”

The crux of the board’s complaint is that the mayor and commissioners should not be allowed to “select an elections supervisor who has not been recommended by the Board of Elections.”

The proposed committee would exclude input from at least two members of the elections board.

County’s grounds for dismissal

According to the motion to dismiss, county attorneys disagree with the board’s interpretation that commissioners and the mayor can only appoint someone to the elections supervisor role if that person is first recommended by the board. Nothing in the legislation creating the board states that the county’s governing authority has to accept the recommendation, or mandate the county only appoint someone recommended by the board, the county attorneys argue.

The court filing states that since the board of elections is an agency of Macon-Bibb County, it does not have standing to sue the county and that sovereign immunity applies to this case.

Because a committee has not been formed, and the mayor and commission have yet to nominate someone themselves, the county’s motion states that the board is asking the judge to “render an advisory opinion regarding facts which have not occurred and may never occur.”

Any controversy that could have arisen after the board rescinded Ford’s recommendation, “has been rendered moot by their new recommendation,” the motion stated.

But Kaplan said he believes it was the board’s legal action that blocked Miller’s plans to convene a committee and identify another candidate to be proposed for the commission’s final approval.

“We wouldn’t have gotten to this point without an attorney. Mr. Miller would have taken it on his own, and broke the charter, and created a committee,” Kaplan said.

The county argues that there is nothing in the law or charter that prevents the mayor from forming a committee, nor does the language accurately specify the process.

Macon-Bibb’s municipal code states: “The governing authority of Bibb County, upon the recommendation of the board of elections, shall appoint a person whose title shall be ‘elections supervisor,’ who shall be the chief administrative officer of the board and who shall have such duties and functions as may be prescribed by the board.”

The county attorneys argue the “recommendation” could be interpreted as simply asking the mayor and county commission to appoint someone, not a specifically identified candidate.

Kaplan said he hopes the attorneys can work something out.

“Nobody wants it to work more than me,” he said.

He also wants the public to know the legal wrangling is not interfering with the day-to-day operations of the board of elections as early voting for the Nov. 8 election begins Monday.

“We’re continuing as business as usual,” Kaplan said. “We’ve got an election to run, which is far more important than this battle that the mayor’s chosen to fight.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.