LUMBERTON — The Robeson County Elections Board won’t have a permanent director anytime soon.
The three-member board voted 2-1 Tuesday to delay the hiring of a new director until 2014. Instead the board plans to hire a clerk, a position that has been vacant since November, and continue to leave the day-by-day administrative leadership of the department in the hands of Tina N. Bledsoe, the board’s interim director since Jan. 1. Bledsoe has been employed by the board for more than 14 years, working most recently as a computer technician.
“Tina is a very competent interim director. She is doing an outstanding job,” said Steve Stone, the board member who made the motion to delay the hiring of a permanent director.
The decision to wait until after July means that the new director will be hired by a new local Board of Elections, although current members might be reappointed for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. By state law, all elections boards in the state must have two board members who are a member of the governor’s party, this year that being Republicans. The local Democratic and Republican parties will submit names to the state of whom they want to serve in the positions. The governor then makes the final appointments.
The director’s position became vacant Jan. 1 with the retirement of Dock Locklear. Locklear had served as Elections Board director for about six and a half years.
Joining Stone, the board’s lone Republican, in voting to delay the hiring of a permanent director and hire a clerk was Lisa Douglas, a Democrat. Voting against the motion was Chairman Joshua Malcolm, also a Democrat,
Malcolm, who last month persuaded the county commissioners to unanimously approve a higher pay scale for the director’s position, could not be reached for comment. Stone said Malcolm threatened to continue the hiring process by authorizing the county to move forward and advertise the position.
“He tried to bring politics into it, saying we were holding the position open as a patronage position. But it’s far from that,” Stone said. “He (Malcolm) expressed his thoughts and ideology. He had some valid points and I respect his decision. At this time, however, I don’t think it (hiring a permanent director) is the best action to take.”
Stone told The Robesonian his motion was based on the department’s poor financial condition. Savings and staff utilization could best be obtained by hiring a clerk at half the cost of a new director, he said.
“Typically the department has a staff of four and the director. Now we have only two staff members, including the director,” Stone said. “One staff member is out on long-term medical leave and there is the vacant clerk’s position. Tina is now doing her job, the director’s job, and part of another employee’s job.”
Stone said that he had to present a strong argument to persuade Douglas to ignore party lines and vote with him.
“I must have presented a good case,” he said. “Lisa was wrestling with herself, but she has observed what is going on here and went along with me.”
Attempts to reach Douglas for her comments were unsuccessful.
John McNeill, the county’s Democratic chairman, said that the Board of Elections had a “tough year” financially, having to fund expenses associated with the redistricting of county voting districts. The board has already over budgeted by $40,000 to $50,000, he said, and this fact, coupled by questions of what to do about the shortage of staff, probably led to the decision to delay hiring the director.
“This wasn’t about a patronage position. There are just unanswered concerns board members need to address,” McNeill said this morning. “But they (board members) are good people and they will get this all sorted out.”
Phillip Stephens, the county’s GOP leader, said this morning that the board’s decision to delay the hiring of the permanent director is in the best interest of county residents.
“There is always talk about finding ways to save the county money,” he said. “Delaying the hiring of a director is a perfect cost-effective method of saving money in an off-election year. There would be no logical reason other than partisanship to hiring a director in an off-election year.”
Stone said Wednesday that he is uncertain what action would be taken if Malcolm attempts to override the board’s decision and force the immediate hiring of a permanent director.
Ricky Harris, Robeson County’s manager, said late Wednesday that Malcolm has not requested that the county move forward with advertising the director’s position.
The only elections this year are municipal, which will be held in November. Filing for those elections begins in July.