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Commissioners, legislators split over state performance review for local elections board

The Floyd County Commission approved a third party peer review of the elections board, but local legislators want a review by the secretary of state’s office and appear to be poised to force the issue.

Senate Bill 202, or the Elections Integrity Act, was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp this year. Under the new law, local governments or state legislators can request a performance review of their local elections boards or superintendents conducted by the Secretary of State’s office.

On Tuesday night, Floyd County commissioners endorsed a third party peer review for the elections board and office, as opposed to enacting a state run performance review.

According to Elections Board Chair Melanie Conrad, they’re looking at bringing in elections clerks from neighboring counties to review their operations. Board member Corey Townsend said he has already reached out to chief clerks in Bartow County and Paulding County, and they’re also considering approaching the Gordon County clerk.

Ultimately, the county attorney’s office would oversee the review board and how it will operate. Current elections board members would have nothing to do with the panel and wouldn’t know anything until the review is done.

However, the state legislative delegation may force the county’s hand.

Rep. Katie Dempsey

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said that she disagrees with the county’s actions and supports bringing in the Secretary of State’s office to conduct a performance review of the elections board and is willing to go further.

The process, if enacted by the legislative body, requires one local representative and one local senator to sign off on it.

“We’ve got to do our due diligence on it,” Dempsey said early Wednesday. “The reality is we can do it or (the county) can do it, it does not require votes.”

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, a cosponsor of SB 202, said Wednesday that Floyd County could benefit from the state review as well as a review by elections officials from nearby counties.

“Historically, our elections have been slow and we’ve had some problems. I don’t see fraud, but if they want to bring in successful county boards and follow up with the state, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

“The secretary of state is tied up with Fulton (County) right now,” he added. “We can look at about 30 days to see what the others come up with before we pull the trigger on the state.”

Dempsey went on record to oppose the county-approved peer review, saying there’s no basis for it in Georgia law.

“It’s not just this election, there are long term issues,” Dempsey said. “We shouldn’t be one of the last counties reporting results.”

Board expansion

Floyd County commissioners also endorsed a recommendation from the elections board to increase their board members from three to five.

The changes to the elections board will require approval by the General Assembly and Dempsey said the local legislative delegation expects to submit a bill during a special called session in November.

Dempsey expects the bill to be introduced in the second week of that session as legislators are meeting to redraw voting districts.

“The special session allows for local legislation so I think this will happen in the special session,” Hufstetler said.

Locally, Conrad said the hope of the board expansion is to help ease the workload the board members. The board is currently nonpartisan, Conrad said, and she hopes to keep it that way.

Wright Bagby

“We’ve been wanting to go from three to five members for a long time and it’s become more evident in the last year and a half that we need it,” Commission Chair Wright Bagby said during caucus Tuesday.

The County Commission currently appoints all three members of the elections board. However, the legislation concerning that expansion may take control of those appointments out of their hands.

Hufstetler said the election boards in Bartow and Gordon counties are set up differently than in Floyd and both are well run. The local Republican and Democratic parties each appoint two members and the Grand Jury appoints the fifth one.

“Their structure seems to work well when both parties are involved,” Hufstetler said. “That way the parties can share in the responsibility.”

That structure will be included in the legislation the delegation will submit to expand the elections board.

Having the appointments by the parties and Grand Jury also will allow the elected County Commission to “keep an arm’s length from the politics” involved, Hufstetler said.

His district includes parts of Bartow and Gordon, so he’s familiar with their systems. He also said Rep. Mitchell Scoggins, R-Cartersville, provided good insight on Bartow when the four legislators — including Dempsey and Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee — met to discuss the issue.

Local control

During caucus Tuesday, commissioners said they’re going ahead with the independent peer review before using SB 202 to save the county money.

“There are a lot of unknowns about Senate Bill 202,” Vice Chair Allison Watters said. “We don’t know the time frame, we don’t know what it’ll cost the county or our taxpayers.”

Allison Watters

While commissioners said they feel that a state performance review would be more impartial, they are wary of a state intrusion.

Scotty Hancock

“They could come in here and take over our elections and we’ll lose all local control,” Commissioner Scotty Hancock said.

There’s also a price tag associated with the state performance review. The county would have to foot the bill and also cover any charges implemented by that review.

During the commission meeting Justin Kelly, a local staffer for 14th District Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, spoke in favor of the state performance review.

“Let’s start putting trust in our legislation that’s being passed and putting trust into our elections,” Kelly said. He then threatened to work politically against commissioners who didn’t vote for the state review.

“If something is not done about this, I will take a personal interest in each of your elections going forward,” he said. “I will find someone to run against you and I will help fundraise for them to replace you.”

County elections operations have undergone heavy criticism over the last year, but it’s only been in recent months that people began to show up at commission meetings to voice complaints.

Some of those complaints are founded in the debunked claims made by former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen.

Trump won Floyd County by a large margin. However, the first ballot audit, ordered by Georgia’s secretary of state, found over 2,500 ballots weren’t counted. The ballots, which elections workers said followed Floyd County voting trends, were entered and counted. Another hand recount followed that audit.

That incident, alongside long lines at polling locations and a confrontational attitude during an elections board meeting, led to the dismissal of the county’s former chief elections clerk.

Other complaints range from what they characterize as unfair treatment of poll watchers and poll workers to suspected election law violations and the initial recommended hire of longtime elections clerk Vanessa Waddell as the chief clerk.

The Floyd County Commission ultimately turned down the recommendation to hire Waddell and reopened the job search. The search is still ongoing and is netting a much larger pool of candidates after the elections board revised the job requirements.

Slow start but early voting running smoothly, weekend voting this Saturday

The Rome municipal election is off to a smooth and slow start with Interim Chief Elections Clerk Vanessa Waddell reporting no issues so far.

“It’s slow, but we’re moving along well,” Waddell said.

As of Tuesday evening, 83 people had cast their votes in the Rome City Commission and Board of Education races. About 31 of those votes were cast on Tuesday.

Early voting will continue through Oct. 29 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Weekend voting will be available this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Community Room on the second floor of the Floyd County Administration Building at 12 E. Fourth Ave. Voting will also be available on both Saturday, Oct. 23, and Sunday, Oct. 24.

Next week, the Rome Civic Center at 400 Civic Center Drive will be open for voters through Oct. 29.

Three Rome City Commission seats are on the ballot. Incumbents Jamie Doss and Randy Quick are running for reelection and Elaina Beeman is stepping down from the city school board to run. Candidates Victor Hixon, Tyrone Holland and LuGina Brown are also seeking one of the three seats.

All seven Rome City Board of Education seats will be filled. Incumbents Faith Collins, Jill Fisher, Melissa Davis, Will Byington, Alvin Jackson and John Uldrick are joined on the ballot by Tracy McDew, Pascha Burge and Ron Roach.

Voters planning to submit absentee ballots can request a ballot no later than Oct. 22 and must include a copy of their driver’s license or state ID when submitting their applications. They can then either return their ballot by mail or cast in the county’s ballot box, which will be located in the Floyd County Administration Building in the Community Room on the second floor.

All precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 2. The last day to register to vote was Oct. 4.

The Mt. Alto North voting precinct has been moved from the church to the Anthony Recreation Center at 2901 Garden Lakes Blvd.

Voters can find their precincts for election day by visiting FloydCountyGa.gov/elections.

Indie Stanley, a student at Model Elementary School

Man acquitted in 2019 Cliffview Drive shooting case

A jury acquitted a Rome man of all charges related to an August 2019 fatal shooting on Cliffview Drive.

Joe Paul Atwater, 21, has been in custody since turning himself in at the jail in September 2019 on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault related to the shooting death of Jonathan Lynn Hull.

Both the state and Atwater’s attorneys agreed that Atwater shot and killed Hull, however Atwater maintained that he acted in self defense.

There had been a previous incident between the two men, Atwater’s attorney Anthony Perotta told the jury, and Hull was the aggressor in the incident. Atwater’s attorneys intimated there had been a confrontation earlier at a Citgo gas station that led to the conflict.

Backing up that assertion, Perotta pointed out that only two minutes elapsed between Hull’s gold SUV and the car carrying Atwater arriving, then that same car leaving, according to video obtained from a nearby residence.

Rome Circuit Assistant District Attorney Kevin Salmon argued that the path of the shot showed that Hull was retreating up a flight of stairs when he was shot.

GBI medical examiner Andrew Koopmeiners testified Tuesday that the bullet had entered through Hull’s left lower back and exited on the opposite side of his chest.

Attorneys for Atwater worked to poke holes in the state’s case and called into question some investigative and prosecutorial decisions regarding the case.

For example, one of the people in the car with Atwater, Kaitlin Richardson, testified during the trial. Atwater’s attorneys asked why the other person in the car with Atwater, Shidreyius McClinton, wasn’t called to testify.

“He’s not been subpoenaed to come here to testify; (but) you know where to lay hands on him,” Perotta said to former Rome Police Department investigator Corey Bowers.

Bowers, who now works for the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, was the lead investigator on the case. He testified that they’d been unsuccessful in reaching McClinton.

McClinton was arrested in March 2021 in Los Angeles, California, on charges that he with two others threw the dead body of a robbery victim from a moving vehicle, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Salmon asked Bowers if it would be difficult to get a city across the country to release a murder suspect to Floyd County.

“It would be very difficult, yes,” Bowers testified.

The trial began Monday and testimony wrapped up Tuesday afternoon. The jury began deliberating late Tuesday and resumed deliberating at 9 a.m., they announced the acquittal verdict around 9:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Covington Park aims to bring beauty, recreation, education to unused parcels in South Rome

Three adjoining lots in South Rome will be transformed into a beautiful park with trails and a pollinator garden by next year if a new project goes as planned.

The South Rome Alliance, along with several community partners, has outlined an ambitious plan to turn three unused parcels bordered by East Main Street, Cave Spring Street and McLin Street, into a picturesque park.

The project’s estimated cost is between $250,000 and $300,000 and it’s expected to be completed by the fall of 2022.

Jake Hager, executive director of the South Rome Alliance, said they’re hoping funding for the project will come from ARPA funds. The American Rescue Plan Act provides direct relief to towns and cities in the U.S. in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m hopeful work will begin around the first part of the year,” Hager said. “We’re hoping to have funding secured in the next month. We’ll start seeing some activity physically happening in March, with a goal of having things formed up by fall of next year.”

Key features of the park will include a parking lot between McLin Street and Cave Spring Street, a lot where vendors can set up, fencing, tables and a pavilion, a pollinator garden, paved and unpaved trail, open green space and a flag plaza with monuments.

One special aspect of the park will be its military plaza. The park is named for former Rome resident Bill Covington, whose family donated one of the parcels to Darlington School. They in turn donated it to the city of Rome. Covington attended Darlington before going off to war in Vietnam. He was killed in action and his body was never recovered.

“As part of honoring his memory, we’ll have a military plaza that would recognize and honor all branches of the military,” Hager said. “We’ll have a Blue Star marker and a Gold Star marker affixed to the site. The Blue Star will memorialize veterans while the Gold Star will memorialize the family members of those who served.”

Another nod to the location’s past is that it was once the home to Anchor Duck Mill, with the company store and cafeteria located on the very corner where Covington Park will be.

“We’re really excited that the park can be a place for neighbors to spend time together,” Hager said. “It can be somewhere passersby can stop and enjoy the outdoors. Someone can take their evening walks there or can use it to enjoy their lunch break.”

The park’s trails will be an approximately 0.15-mile paved loop — with connections to parking lots and the neighborhood on the south side of the park — as well as approximately 0.2 miles of unpaved nature trail.

Bekki Fox with the City of Rome is on the Covington Park committee and said she’s excited for the possibilities the park has to offer the area.

“There is a park in South Rome called Parks Hoke Park and it’s well used,” she said. “But this park will be located in a spot that really sort of borders South Rome and what we call East Rome. So people from both areas will be able to utilize it. It’s right beside a beautiful portion of Silver Creek.”

Fox said she and City Manager Sammy Rich, who’s a big proponent of the project, visited the area and were impressed by how beautiful and peaceful it is. She was also emphatic about the location’s potential as a space for recreation as well as education.

“When you’re standing by the creek you don’t even think you’re in the middle of town,” she said. “What’s unique is that there used to be a factory on this property. There’s so much history in this parcel. And this park will be able to be utilized as an exercise path for people in the neighborhood; it could be a spot for picnics or lunch for staff at the nearby health department; it could be utilized by the Boys and Girls Club and by Anna K Davie Elementary and Darlington schools. It’s just so full of potential.”

Confirmed partners for the project include the City of Rome, the South Rome Alliance, Darlington School, Boys & Girls Clubs, Rome ECO Center, Keep Rome Floyd Beautiful, National Garden Club, Georgia Urban Forestry and the Exchange Club.