It didn’t take long for controversy to erupt after the three-member Jefferson County Election Commission was sworn in Wednesday afternoon.
Only a few minutes after Jefferson County Clerk Patricia Royal Johnson had sworn in Ted Davis, Shara Williams and Stu Soffer, a request by Davis to conduct an organizational meeting was rejected by Soffer, who was elected chairman of the commission after being nominated by former chairman Trey Ashcraft in January.
“At the time of that meeting, I was trying to bestow what I thought would be an honor for Stu and show him how much I appreciated and respected the time we worked together,” Ashcraft said Wednesday afternoon. “We worked together for 10 years in a spirit of non-partisanship and it never occurred to me that he would pull this.”
Davis, who was formerly the administrative assistant to former Pine Bluff Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr., was elected chairman of the county Democratic Party in January, and was also elected by the party to the Election Commission, replacing Ashcraft who resigned because he is moving out of the county.
Soffer, the only Republican on the three-member commission, said an Attorney General’s opinion in 2011 prohibits the other members of the commission from removing him as chairman, and also sets a two-year term for chairman.
Davis contends that the old commission, which included Ashcraft, Williams and Soffer, “ended” when Ashcraft stepped down, and an organizational meeting was required to elect officers.
“This is a new organization and we need to have a meeting to reorganize,” Davis said.
Soffer advised Davis to contact Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter, whose office represents the commission, but Davis said no, insisting that Soffer call a meeting, and Soffer again said no.
Davis then said he and Williams, who is also a Democrat, would get together to nominate officers, a suggestion that Soffer said was not legal.
“You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do,” Soffer said.
“Commissioner Davis does not understand procedures set out by law,” Soffer said later. “I don’t know where he got his information but he is clearly wrong.”
Soffer said only the chairman of the commission can call a meeting and “there’s no need to call a meeting now.”
Davis declined to comment other than the statements he made to Soffer.
The Attorney General’s opinion also said that a commissioner appointed by a county political party committee may be removed by a majority vote of that committee.
According to Soffer, he was elected chairman of the commission at a organizational meeting called by the Democratic Party members of that commission (Ashcraft and Williams), and said Davis is the only new member of the commission.
“Commissioner Davis might have been used to getting his own way because of the previous job he had for the past eight years but we don’t operate that way at the county level,” Soffer said. “For the last 10 years, we (the previous commissioners) have worked together in a non-partisan way for the good of all the citizens of the county.”
Ashcraft, whose term did not officially end until Davis was sworn in Wednesday, said he had expected a smooth transition.
“The commission getting off on the wrong foot like this is disappointing,” Ashcraft said. “This puts me in an awkward position for making what I thought was a nice gesture but I believe they will work through this and get it figured out.”
State law also provides that the commission conduct a reorganizational meeting before the next general election and Soffer said he plans to remain as chairman until then.
“I’m not doing anything that’s not my legal right to do,” he said. “I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people, including Democrats, to stay on the commission and I intend to do that.”