If bit dogs bark the loudest, then Jackson County Elections Board member Erma Denney must have one helluva bite.

During last week's elections board meeting, Denney was very defensive about criticism from this newspaper, and others, that she should not mix her duties on that board with her political activism as a proponent in the Hoschton recall efforts and the upcoming city election.

Last week, Denney hid behind a memo from elections board chairman Eric Crawford, who said he didn't think she had violated any laws or ethical standards. Denney also hid behind Pete Fuller, local Democratic Party chairman, who defended Denney in a recent blog post critical of an editorial in the Sept. 11 issue of this newspaper.

I respectfully disagree with both Crawford and Fuller's defense of Denney and stand by my previous criticism of her conduct.

A little background is in order.

Denney, a former mayor of Hoschton, has long been a critic of the current city administration over a variety of issues. When Mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland came under fire last spring over some racial issues, it led to a political firestorm in the small town. A recall effort was started and Denney has been a vocal advocate for that cause, appearing multiple times at city council meetings calling on Kenerly and Cleveland to resign.

Meanwhile in July, Denney was nominated by the local Republican Party to the county board of elections. This is a new board with five members, two nominated from each political party and a chairman chosen by the superior court judge (all board members are technically appointed by the judge.)

In early September, the recall applications against Kenerly and Cleveland, complete with signatures from 100 Hoschton citizens, came before the board of elections for verification. County elections staffers verified the signatures and on Sept. 6, the board voted to affirm that the signatures were legitimate, a move that allowed the recall effort to move forward.

All of that would have been fine, except that during that meeting Denney made it very clear she was an advocate of the recall and not just an impartial member of the elections board.

Most people would conclude that any elections board member who openly advocates a partisan position, especially during a board meeting, is putting themselves, and the integrity of the elections board, in jeopardy. 

Here's a summary of what happened at that Sept. 6 elections board meeting:

After the recall petitions were presented to the board by staff members, Denney began asking a series of questions.

"How many (signatures) were not valid because they were not registered at that time?" she asked.

She was told one person.

"What was the name?" she wanted to know.

Staff members told her the name.

"Um, ok, I happen to know that one. We were doing the Jefferson stuff and we had this part here and I happen to know the people. He's in the household with Michelle and Rick S. and, um, he was on the list we had provided to us by one of the coordinators for this. He was one of four people at the S. household. I'm just saying I happen to know this one personally, just like I say, the clerks in Jefferson said when we were doing the voter purge. I do happen to know this. It's Christopher is his name on the voter registration list. He's with Michelle and Rick, there's four people — there's the daughter and the going-to-be son-in-law and then...."

Denney was interrupted at that point by a staff member who told her there were five, not four people at that address. Denny backed up.

"I stand corrected. My bad. I knew there was four. Never mind. My bad."

In discussing other names on the petitions, Denney asked twice, "Who is the collector for this one?" meaning who in the recall effort got the questionable signatures.

When another elections board member asked about the legitimacy of registered voters, Denney, not a staff member, answered.

"On the back of each of the collector pages the collector had to attest that the people signed in their presence and then the actual coordinator, chairperson for the effort, had to sign it, then had to be notarized. So there was multiple layers of attempts to corroborate it."

The elections board then voted to approve the signatures, a move that was routine since the work to verify the names had already been done by staff.

After that vote, Denney asked chairman Crawford about what happened next. That led to a 25-minute discussion and back-and-fourth about the details of the recall process and what steps lay ahead for the recall effort.

There were at least 27 questions or comments from Denney during that discussion. Most were routine, technical questions about timing and process, but there were a couple comments that many would find troubling for an impartial elections board member to say.

"I'd just like to say thank you to the staff. This was an extraordinary that you all accomplished this so quickly and so throughly and I appreciate your ponder, your guidance and research into the legalities of every step of the way and so we're lucky to have you (Crawford) as the chairman, and we're lucky to have Jennifer and her staff handle this.I really appreciate the fact that you proactively did an independent examination so that when you were provided with the numbers, you could be comfortable because they matched; that was an excellent preemptive step."

It's obvious that Denney was speaking as an advocate of the recall effort, thanking the staff for expediting the process. No other elections board member asked so many questions or made such a speech.

As the meeting closed, chairman Crawford said he thought the elections board and staff had taken all the legal steps needed.

"Great," Denney said. "We're grateful."

She was obviously speaking as one of the recall proponents.

None of Denney's comments or questions, taken individually, might have been a problem. But taken together during the 35-minute meeting, it was clear to any objective observer that Denney was speaking as a partisan advocate about an issue before the board. 

No matter how you slice, dice or obfuscate her conduct, that isn't right. 

Here's an example of why elections board members should refrain from direct political advocacy: What would happen if Denney, or any other elections board member, became an open advocate for a particular candidate in a local election and the outcome of that race were close, with only a handful of votes difference?

What would happen if the losing candidate challenged the eligibility of some voters, throwing the matter into the elections board's hands to decide the legitimacy of those voters?

How would it look if Denney, an advocate for one of the candidates, sat on the board making that critical determination?

Of course that would be a conflict-of-interest and would taint the entire process. 

And it could happen. There are three candidates on Hoschton's ballot in November for two city council seats and Denney has been publicly critical of one of those candidates while serving as a member of the elections board.

At a Sept. 5 Hoschton council meeting, Denney verbally attacked incumbent council member Mindi Kiewert for her public silence about the issues surrounding Kenerly and Cleveland. Kiewert is up for re-election next month.

"Mindi, it would be delusional to think this community wants you to serve again when you failed us in such a miserable fashion," Denney said to Kiewert during the council meeting.

Now what happens if there is an issue about Kiewert's election results — a tie, or contested voters?

Having criticized Kiewert in public, Denney would be compromised in any election board's actions on that issue because of her open partisanship.

Denney wasn't forced to be on the elections board — she chose to accept the position.

In doing that, she also chose to forgo political partisanship on local issues and candidates so that she could function as an objective board member on matters that come before the board. 

But she apparently doesn't see it that way. In her comments defending her actions last week, Denney said that under its new structure, the elections board is now a "partisan" board, as if that allows her to be a partisan political advocate.

It doesn't. Although four members of the board are appointed by political parties, that does not give those members carte blanche to be political advocates in ways that conflict with their non-partisan duties as board members. Board members can't be political advocates one day, then pretend to be impartial elections board members the next day. The system doesn't work that way.

In the end, Denney agreed to no longer be involved in decisions coming before the board about Hoschton's recall. That's as it should be given her aggressive partisanship on the issue.

The first duty of an elections board member is to make sure the local elections process is fair and impartial. That includes not tainting the process with their own personal political advocacy.

No other Jackson County elections board member seems to have a problem understanding that common sense concept.

If Denney doesn't get it, she should resign from the elections board so that she can become the unbridled partisan advocate she apparently wants to be.

She can't have it both ways.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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