Bibb Board of Elections hears candidate challenge, pushes absentee ballots, still at odds with Macon Water Authority post

The+Macon-Bibb+County+Board+of+Elections+continues+to+challenge+the+interim+appointment+of+the+Macon+Water+Authority%27s+District+2+representative.+

Liz Fabian

The Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections continues to challenge the interim appointment of the Macon Water Authority's District 2 representative.

All of Georgia’s active voters will be receiving absentee ballot applications for the May 19 election but Macon-Bibb County was a step ahead.

“We had already decided to mail out absentee ballot (applications) in our county before the state,” Macon-Bibb elections board member Mike Kaplan said in Thursday’s called meeting.

“You’re always ahead of the curve and we appreciate that,” Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas replied during the teleconference.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicates this year’s election for the local board and poll workers. Issues related to the virus also were raised during the special meeting that was called following a hearing on a challenge to the candidacy of Myrtice Champion Johnson for Bibb County Board of Education District 1.

Charles Boulware, who lives in that district, questioned the validity of Johnson’s candidacy since her daughter works in the administrative office of the school system.

Earlier in the month, the board of elections received a letter from school board attorneys also raising concern about Johnson’s candidacy.

Georgia code prohibits anyone from serving on a board of education if they have an immediate family member on that board or serving as a superintendent, principal, assistant principal or on administrative staff.

Johnson’s daughter, Myrja Fuller, is a former teacher who currently is a school improvement coordinator serving in the Curriculum and Instruction Department of the District Office, where she’s worked since 2014, according to the letter.

Both at the March 19 board of elections meeting and during Thursday’s hearing, chairman Henry Ficklin said he does not believe the board has the authority to keep Johnson from seeking the office without violating her First Amendment rights.

Board of Elections attorney William Noland agrees.

“There’s a difference in being qualified to seek the office and being qualified to hold the office,” Noland said. “She could win the election and her daughter can quit.”

The board voted to overrule Boulware’s challenge.

“I’m just legitimately concerned that if someone is elected and is not able to serve, that we’ll have to have another election and now’s not the time for that,” Boulware said Friday.

While he agrees the board’s reasoning is sound, Boulware wanted the challenge on record.

“They made a decision that kind of let her off the hook until after the election. I wish that the board of elections had at least asked her what’s her plan about this,” Boulware said.

Johnson’s attorney Virgil Adams attended the hearing by phone but did not comment following the ruling.

Liz Fabian
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is complicating an already unusual special election for the Macon Water Authority District 2 seat vacated by the death of Javors Lucas last fall.

Water Authority Post challenge continues

Adams and the board of elections continue to go back-and-forth over the appointment of interim Macon Water Authority District 2 representative Sheddrick Clark, who does not live in that district.

After Ficklin questioned the legality of that appointment, Adams responded this week with a letter quoting the authority’s charter that the probate judge “shall appoint a qualified person” to serve a vacant seat until the next general election.

Special to the CCJ
Sheddrick Clark, of Lizella, will serve as the District 2 representative on the Macon Water Authority until after the May 19th election.

Ficklin argues that Clark was not “qualified” because living in the district is a qualification for office for that seat, which was held by Javors Lucas until his death last fall.

Adams maintains that there is no requirement that the interim person live in the district, but Fickin believes that’s the intent of the word “qualified” in the charter.

“We have a right to question the qualification,” Ficklin said in the meeting. “Seems like the water authority is saying anyone who is breathing is qualified.”

The water authority’s executive director Tony Rojas has said, and Adams’ letter reiterates, that it’s their intent to recommend someone outside of the district so that they are not giving the interim person an advantage in a future election to fill the post.

Noland is sending another letter to the water authority asking them to clarify their meaning of the word “qualified” in the charter.

“You have someone in there who can’t possibly be representing the needs of the district because he doesn’t live there,” Noland said.

He admits there’s little the elections board can do, but someone could file a legal challenge to Clark’s appointment, he said.

The only person to qualify for the March 24 special election to fill Javors Lucas’ unexpired term through the end of the year, Merritt Johnson, also has a dilemma.

Because of concerns over COVID-19, that special election was postponed until May 19 –  the same date as the general election for the new District 2 term beginning next year. Because Johnson was unopposed, the special election was canceled. State law presumes he would be voting for himself and would be elected.

He was to be sworn in April 1, but now can’t officially take the oath for the unexpired term until May 20, the day after the election.

The board determined that Johnson cannot be listed as an incumbent on the ballot where he faces Desmond D. Brown and Mike McIntosh.

80,000 ballots to open by hand?

The board of elections also is looking for alternative polling sites if the COVID-19 closures remain in place May 19.

Middle Georgia State University, Northeast High School and Brookdale Elementary are all closed indefinitely and might not be open in time for the election.

Due to a scheduling conflict, the board has shifted the East Macon 2 precinct from St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 2501 Shurling Drive to St. Matthew Baptist Church at 1211 Shurling Drive where they will have more space for the new voting equipment.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger said the May 19 election is proceeding as planned unless conditions warrant a change.

All 6.9 million active voters in the state will be encouraged to vote by absentee to maximize turnout in the pandemic.

Kaplan raised a concern that the board of elections could be overwhelmed with absentee ballots.

“Last election we had 8,000 absentee ballots and it takes all day to count them. What do we do if we have 80,000 absentee ballots?” Kaplan asked.

The county has two ballot counters, but that might not be enough to meet current deadlines, elections supervisor Jeanetta Watson said.

Watson said she would check with the state to see if extensions will be granted to tally results.

Commissioner Lucas, who was a guest at the meeting and does not serve on the board, asked whether the board had considered that some people might not have stamps available or the money for postage.

Ficklin said there is a mechanism in place to make sure that even if a ballot is mailed without proper postage that it will be delivered and counted.

During the pandemic restrictions, Watson will be training poll workers through webinars and the board will continue to meet by teleconference until social distancing guidelines are relaxed.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]