Election commissioner finds fault with municipal election change

Arkansas state and Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer of White Hall believes that a resolution approved by the Pine Bluff City Council in December 2012 conflicts with state law, and he wants the panel to revoke the measure.

Soffer said Wednesday that he’s shared his concerns with Secretary of State Mark Martin, but hasn’t yet been receipted on an e-mail outlining his objections. Meanwhile, an aide to Martin told The Commercial that Martin was not prepared to comment on the matter.

The resolution — co-sponsored by Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown, George Stepps, Alderwoman Thelma Walker and then-Alderwoman Irene Holcomb — requests party committees for the county’s “recognized” political affiliations to conduct primary elections for municipal offices beginning in 2014.

Soffer said state codes direct that a county board of election commissioners — not the parties themselves — is to conduct party primary elections. Therefore, Soffer rates the resolution as an “invalid document.”

A resolution is not a law, but instead dictates policy. It is non-binding and unenforceable. An ordinance, however, constitutes a local law.

The resolution in question was adopted in a 5-3 vote with Aldermen Bill Brumett, Wayne Easterly and Steven Mays providing the opposition. Favoring the measure were its co-sponsers — Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown and George Stepps, Alderwoman Thelma Walker and then-Alderwoman Irene Holcomb.

The legislation’s proponents said they figured it was time for a change and to take steps to deter so many persons from obtaining ballot spots. Nine candidates, all independent, had sought the mayor’s post in November. Political novice Debe Hollingsworth claimed a surprise victory, avoiding a runoff and falling just shy of full majority of the votes in turning back incumbent Carl A. Redus Jr. and the other hopefuls.

Future candidates may still run as independents, which has been the course of choice for many years.

Qualifying as an independent candidate only requires a collection of a set number of signatures from registered voters. Candidates running as a Democrat or Republican must also pay filing fees, which haven’t yet been firmly established.

Republican fees are expected to be “much lower,” Soffer said, than anticipated Democratic amounts. Some sources said the Democratic fees could be about $1,000 and $1,400, respectively, for primary council and mayoral candidates.

When the resolution was in its discussion phase, Easterly expressed discontent with the changes municipal primaries might create in the political process.

“I like it like it is now,” Easterly said then.

He projected primaries “would just make money for the parties,” and added, “What’s wrong with America right now is their parties,” an opinion which, he said Wednesday, remains the same.

“I don’t know of any compassionate, considered reasoning behind the resolution,” Mays said Wednesday. “I said it was wrong when I voted against it, and I think it’s wrong today.

“We need to be developing avenues of increasing political participation within the city, not reducing it,” he said. “We have a good number of intelligent, gifted young people here — both black and white — who look up to the current elected leaders and want to follow in their footsteps. I think we need to encourage that. I think city government ought to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

Brumett joined Easterly and Mays in tagging the overall impact of the measure as potentially hurtful.

After the resolution’s endorsement, Holcomb said she wanted to “remove” any possible thoughts that the measure might have somehow been aimed against Hollingsworth.

“It had nothing to do with her winning,” Holcomb said, adding the resolution reflected “a personal preference for me and some others.”

Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers said Wednesday that City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott is still “looking at” the resolution, but thus far hasn’t “seen a problem with it.”

Soffer is nevertheless unconvinced of its validity and believes the issue may eventually be settled only by an opinion from state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.