The Jonesboro City Council held a special called meeting Wednesday, January 18 to discuss costs for holding the March 21 special election for mayor.
Under Georgia election law, municipalities can request the use of county voting machines at no cost. However, that doesn’t mean the election itself costs no money. Trained staff and election workers need to be paid for their time. Election machine companies need to test the machines for logic and accuracy—that is, to make sure the machines count each vote correctly. It also costs money to print paper absentee and advance ballots. And municipalities must pay the local “legal organ” (in Clayton County, the Clayton News) to publish various required notices to the public.
Jonesboro is holding a special election because longtime Mayor Joy B. Day resigned in August 2022, reportedly to spend more time with her grandchildren. Two candidates have filed Declarations of Intent to run for the mayoral seat with the city. County and state candidates in Clayton County file their DOIs and campaign contribution disclosure reports with the state. Municipal candidates file their paperwork with their own cities.
The only two candidates who have declared for the mayoral race are Councilwoman Pat Sebo-Hand and Councilwoman Dr. Donya Sartor. The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request for their DOI forms.
The Clayton Crescent also has filed an Open Records Request for all of Jonesboro’s municipal candidate qualifying paperwork after qualifying ends on Friday, January 27.
Both advance voting and Election Day voting will take place at the new Jonesboro City Center next to Lee Street Park. The address is 1859 City Center Way. The old City Hall is no longer in use, and the county moved the polling place from Lee Street elementary.
Sartor says having two separate elections at different locations places an undue burden on voters who might not have transportation or who would need to ask for a second day off work to cast ballots in both the county and municipal elections.
Sebo-Hand says the city has run its own elections for as long as she has lived in the city and that they’ve never had any problems with the State Election Board with how those elections were handled.
Wednesday’s agenda packet contained e-mails and estimates from county Elections Director Shauna Dozier. Those estimates included one titled “Lake City,” which placed Jonesboro’s estimated cost for the county to run its elections at $24,706. A separate staff-only estimate came to $11,704.
On January 12, Dozier e-mailed City Manager Ricky Clark:
Post Board of Registration and Elections meetings, the Board approved the City of Jonesboro’s request to enter into an IGA to use the voting equipment to conduct the Special Election for the city.
In the interest of the Clayton County Voters to eliminate them from going to vote at multiple locations for multiple elections, I would like to make a request for the City of Jonesboro in this situation to reconsider this option and work with us to conduct your special election on the City of Jonesboro’s behalf.
I understand that you had to present the information that I provided to you in order for your City Council to make a decision, however with the changes in which we will be conducting two county wide special elections it would be most beneficial for us to conduct the election on behalf of the City of Jonesboro.
The Exhibit that was given to you was solely the standard estimate that I provide to all cities that are interested as if we are only conducting your election. This is a quick way to show you the majority of cost associated. But it is an estimate.
There will still be an associated cost depending on how customized you would like to have the election. The bulk of cost is personnel, if you want to have an early voting location at the city of Jonesboro instead of utilizing the early voting sites we have established for the other special elections. If you do not want to have a site at the City of Jonesboro, this will reduce the estimate significantly.
If your City Council is still interested please let me know and if so are you interested in having an early voting location at the City of Jonesboro. I have attached a bare minimum cost estimate for you to consider.
District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis, who had been at Jonesboro’s regular meeting when the issue was discussed, told The Clayton Crescent he had contacted Elections and Registration Director Shauna Dozier to ask why both the Jonesboro municipal and the county special elections couldn’t be on the same ballot.
On January 13, Dozier wrote Davis:
After speaking with you regarding the City of Jonesboro per your request I am sending you an additional Exhibit that will display the cost of the election should the City of Jonesboro decide to utilize the advance voting sites we have already established for the Sheriff’s race. Based on our discussion I included a $1,000 administration fee for the work that I have completed associated with the City of Jonesboro along with the administrative work that has to be done associated with this election. There are two attachments: the first is if they City of Jonesboro wants an early voting location, the other without but includes a flat $1,000 administrative fee.
The goal is to ensure that we provide the most cost efficient service to our voters by allowing them to vote on all races in which they are eligible to vote in without having to drive to multiple locations. Further, given that we have a county wide election, all of our equipment will be dedicated to conducting our election, which would make it difficult to all any municipality to utilize at this time without causing us a hardship. Should the City of Jonesboro change their request from the IGA to use the equipment to conduct their own election to a request for us to conduct their election, I will take the request to the Board of Registration and Elections at the upcoming Regular Board meeting that will be held on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.
County estimated costs
During last night’s meeting, Seb0-Hand asked why the estimates from Elections and Registration had changed.
“My question in regards to this is the amount that changed from when we were first given the amount that we were going to be charged by the county, versus what we have been given this past week. In just a matter of days that changed, and quite a large amount. So can you enlighten us on that change and and that figure?” Sebo-Hand asked Elections and Registration Board Vice-Chair Dolly Johnson.
‘The initial number that you was given was because that was calculated with staff, equipment, poll workers, the whole process of running the election,” Johnson replied. “But because the election is on the same day, one of our commissioners went back to speak to the director. And the question that was put before her, that was given to me that I put before her, was ‘Why would there be all of these costs when we’re actually already using staff, voting equipment, everything is already being utilized because the election is the dame day?’ The only difference would be the staff that would be utilized for ballot proofing, the L&A logistics [sic] and accuracy testing. So that was actually the cost that brought it way down. Because the rest of the cost that was on the sheet is actually already being utilized, because the election is that day.”
Sebo-Hand said, “But that was already—to my knowledge, that had already been initially brought before us when we got the initial quote from the county …So that’s why I’m just a little confused that, in less than a week’s time, we have a difference, a huge difference, based on the commissioner that you did not mention going to the county to, I don’t know what transpired in that.”
“Well because, as I stated, the conversation was, if we’re already utilizing all of these things, why charge them for that? Just to charge them for the work that needs to be done specifically for Jonesboro,” Johnson said. “Which would be logistics [sic] and accuracy testing, the ballot testing, creating the ballots. So that’s why all of the rest of the charge, it’s basically paid for, because we are in an election season.”
The school SPLOST referendum will be on the county ballot, Johnson said, along with the sheriff’s race.
Clark said that, at its January 9 meeting, the city council had voted to approve an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Clayton County Elections and Registration to use the county machines but run its own election, which is allowed under state law. The council decided against letting the county run its election at a cost to the city of $24,000.
Clark pointed out that on the next day, January 10, the county Elections and Registration Board issued the call for the March 21 special election date.
Sartor said, “We were told that what we were given initially is what she provides to all cities that are interested, as if we are only conducting your location, your location at their site, so I think that’s what the confusion was. So there hasn’t been a change in pricing, to my understanding. It was a change in what was requested that reflected a change in pricing. And that’s in the e-mail that she provided to us. So that’s what the big jump from $24,000 was and that’s what I brought to attention in December, I think the December meeting, I was getting clear for the record that what we were looking at in front of us was not what we were asking. And so, we went and got further clarification, with the help of the commission, to actually get a quote for what we were asking. So I brought that up, that clearly the $24,000, based on what was laid in front of us, was not the correct thing for what we were asking. So I don’t know if that helps clarify for those in the audience that might be confused or for Councilwoman Sebo.”
Johnson added that the costs were accurate “moving forward” because of pay increases for poll workers and elections staff: “With all of the salary increases and everything, that kicks it way up.” County elections officials had asked for the raises because they were having problems hiring poll workers.
“Personally, I’m hoping that each city will come in to the county and allow us to run their elections because we actually can have an election with the city on that ballot,” Johnson said, “so that ballot could have Jonesboro on it, that ballot would have three selections that would go to Jonesboro residents. The other residents of the county would only have two on there.”
For example, Morrow had its citywide special referendum on the November 2022 countywide ballot. However, the county was holding a regular, not a special, election.
Sartor asked whether Jonesboro residents could vote in the municipal election at any of the county’s advance voting locations outside of the city.
“Now, I would need to get some clarity on that but I believe that it would be available at all of their early voting sites,” Johnson said. “I’ll need to get clarity. It may just be Jonesboro, and then, when they come to Jonesboro, they’re going to have all three options on their ballot so that they don’t have to go to the county to vote for school SPLOST or for the sheriff. And I’m almost certain that it is the second.” The Clayton Crescent was not able to reach Johnson by press time for that clarification.
Sartor pointed out two exhibits, one for $11,704 for the county to run the municipal election and to bring a site to the city, the other for $1,400 for printing absentee ballots ($400) plus a county administrative fee ($1,000).
Watch the full meeting here, minus the first six minutes and 30 seconds of audio that were not on the city’s recording (we’ve asked why that is):
“So we could get this election for as low as $1,400,” Sartor said, adding, “It doesn’t make sense to have a site here [at City Center] that we pay almost $10,000 for, and we’ve got a site a rock’s throw away at Lee Street Elementary, which is JD04, which is the vast majority.”
Should the county run all city elections?
Mayor Pro Tempore Tracey Messick asked Johnson whether most of the other municipalities in Clayton County were having the county run their elections.
“No, actually, the cities are pretty much doing their own,” Johnson said. “I’ve been the chair for a couple of years, but I’ve only been on the board for a few years. And as an advocate for the citizens, because my purpose and my goal, our purpose as a board, is to make it as easy and as simple as possible for people to be able to vote, not have any issues with them getting to the polls and being able to vote. Personally, I would like to see—and that’s something we’re in discussion with—it may not happen, but it’s certainly something that I’m going to continue to put on the table, that we hold the elections for the different cities. I just think that it’s easier when people can go and vote on one ballot, without going from one place to the other for this or that, when according to the state, we can have it all on one ballot.”
Messick said that the county would have to provide the same materials whether the election were held in the city or on the county ballot. “But she [Elections Director Shauna Dozier] stated that it could put a hardship on the county. So what’s the difference in having the materials here and the city just running it, versus just having the materials here and the county has to run it? What’s the difference in the hardship?”
“The hardship is probably financial,” Johnson said. “The Board of Elections and Registration does not have a very big budget. And, as I have stated, a lot of salaries have gone up, the equipment, the cost for the paper alone. And then, we’re constantly fighting Senate Bill 202 every step of the way, they’re constantly implementing new laws that makes it a hardship. I don’t know if you realize that, in 2017 or ’81, they [Georgia Assembly] took the budget from Elections and Registrations across the state. The budgets initially was in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even close to a million. That has been slashed [to] less than a quarter of what it was, and that’s for all Elections and registrations [statewide]. So I’m not sure that it’s anything other than financial that would cause a hardship for the county to host an election. Please get some clarity from Shauna on that.”
Sebo-Hand: “We are down to the wire here”
Messick said that the city had “been reaching out to the county since November, and the response has been not great. So I would like some assurance, if this council decides to vote in that direction, of what’s changed and how we can guarantee that we’re going to get better response, because this is real important.”
“Well, I think so too,” Johnson replied, “and it is one of my pet peeves. So she [Dozier] was instructed—recommended, I’ll say, by the board [of Elections and Registration] year before last, because even before I became chair, I get a lot of calls from elected officials. And I’m a board member. But I get a lot of calls because a lot of people know me from the community and just being out…So we’re putting it on the table that she should respond to all elected officials and county officials within 72 hours, That doesn’t seem to be the case. I can assure you, that is on the table, that is up front and on the table. My goal is to make sure that that happens. That’s an accountability concern for me. I believe in accountability. Trust me, Ms. Messick, I am going to be working on that….She’s been out on leave for a minute, but she wasn’t out in November. Nor was she out in October. So I don’t understand what the delay was.”
Sebo-Hand said, “I have lots of concerns, but first and foremost is the City of Jonesboro has been handling their elections ever since I’ve been in this city since 2005. Ever since I’ve been on this council since 2009, 2010….We’ve not had any issues running our own, and I think that the people of the City of Jonesboro in this city handling their own elections. And the other thing that I had a question about is the expedience right now in discerning whether or not the county was going to—you [Johnson] mentioned that were were going to need to get some more clarification, because we’re down to the wire here. We have qualifying next week for our mayoral election. And so, we’re not going to be able to meet again to discuss this as a full council. Not for another special called meeting between now and the time of qualifying. So we have to make a decision now. And though I greatly appreciate you being here and all the time that you’ve spent, the city is fully well-qualified to handle our own elections, We have, in all the years that I have been on this council, and the years prior to me being on this council, and I think that we can continue to do so.
“And, we have had situations where we have had a county election and a city election during that same time, and our residents have had to go to two different polling locations, Sebo-Hand continued. “I’ve not had an issue with it, and I don’t remember that anyone else has, and if they have, maybe it’s been. awhile, I don’t know about it, or maybe they didn’t bring it forward. But I’m fine with the City of Jonesboro handling their own municipal election.”
“Well, I don’t think that the Elections Office is biased in any way,” Johnson said.
“Oh, I wasn’t intimating that it was,” Sebo-Hand replied.
“Yes, ma’am, but of that’s what you guys decide to do, that’s, you know, it’s all good,” Johnson said. “You guys have been doing that forever.”
“Well, thank you,” Sebo-Hand said.
“Just make sure you have a certified person on your board, that somebody is certified so that we don’t run into trouble with the state,” Johnson said, “with the secretary of state. But I think you guys are all aware.”
“Yes ma’am,” Sebo hand said, “I don’t think you’ll find that we will have any issues with the secretary of state’s office in how we run our municipal elections.”
Sartor told the council, “My grandfather always said, ‘You do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. And we have an average of 223 people coming to vote in our municipal election when we’ve got 2,20 registered voters. To Councilwoman Sebo’s point: we have always conducted, but we cannot say we have conducted successful elections if we have less than seven percent of our people coming out to vote. It behooves us as elected officials to look and see what obstacles are in the way. And perhaps some of the obstacles that are in the way are, just like you said, you don’t have a problem running to different places. But a person that has to pay for transportation, they have a problem. You don’t have to walk to polls, but people who do, they have a problem. People that have to get babysitters, they have a problem.”
In Jonesboro’s past three municipal elections, Sartor said, the voter turnouts were 186, 263, and 222.
“If you need to pay $11,000 to have it here, then have it here,” Sartor said. “But make voting accessible to everyone.”
Messick noted that the agenda did not include time for public comment.
“But aren’t we obligated by law to give the opportunity for the public to speak?” Sartor asked.
City Attorney Matricardi said it would have had to have been on the published agenda.
“So I should have added that?” Sartor said. “Okay. I’m sorry.” She then moved the council approve the $11,704 for the county to run the municipal election and add a site at City Center. That motion died for lack of a second.
Councilman Ed Wise made a motion that the city run its own election, which Sebo-Hand seconded. Messick called for a vote and Sartor called for discussion.
“I think we’ve already pretty well discussed this,” Messick said.
“I have to have additional discussion,” Sartor replied.
“Okay, two minutes,” Messick said. “You may have two minutes for discussion, absolutely.”
“Is it a rule I get time?” Sartor asked Matricardi. “She’s able to do that? Give me a time limit? She can? ‘Cause she run the show? OK, cool….Mr. Clark, what is the cost to have the election ran by the city? Is that $24,000? Because I don’t see that quote now.”
Clark pointed out the $10,450 cost was for Dominion, the voting machine company, to be on hand in case any machine went down on election day, as well as to perform logic and accuracy testing. The city also would pay $450 for a poll manager, $200 for an assistant poll manager, and $150 “for all of the six poll workers on the day that logic and accuracy testing is done.” Dominion also does election worker training, he said.
“Does the $10,450 include staff?” Sartor asked. Clark said no.
“For $11,704, we can have it here (at City Center), and have it in the county,” she said. “But the motion is for $10,450, so we may end up paying more and only have one location for people to vote….Is that accurate, yes or no?”
“There’s more to it,” Clark explained.
City employees are already on the clock during early voting.
Sartor said the city has to staff two Saturdays and a Sunday, which she said puts the total cost over $14,000.
Ulimately, the council voted 5-0-1 to run its own elections.
Sartor said she did not mean to abstain from the final vote; an abstention counts as a “yes” vote. Sartor said Thursday that she had meant to vote “no,” adding that the new electronic voting system for councilmembers had thrown her off.
“Basically, it’s costing us $2,000 more,” Sartor said. “It would have cost less to run [the municipal election] from City Hall and the county locations.”
Sheriff’s race a separate special election
Complicating matters in Jonesboro is the mayoral election’s proximity to the countywide special election for a new sheriff. The sheriff’s seat has been in limbo since Victor Hill came under federal investigation for abusing pretrial detainees in the Clayton County Jail. A jury later convicted Hill of violating the rights of six pretrial detainees, including a 17-year-old, under color of law. Federal prosecutors introduced jailhouse videos of Hill, along with his handpicked appointee, Levon Allen, and other command staff and corrections officers involved in at least three such instances, including that of the 17-year-old. Hill’s case is on appeal. A federal judge will impose Hill’s prison sentence next month.
As county elections staff prepare for the March special election, the severe freeze in December led to massive damage at the Clayton County Elections and Registration Office in the Historic Jonesboro Courthouse. Staff are mostly working from home, with a skeleton crew working out of Government Circle on in-person tasks like registering people to vote and taking candidates’ paperwork. All this comes on the heels of a brutal election season for the department, with election workers giving up their holiday breaks to cover early voting days, and an Elections and Registration Board with two inexperienced appointees.
What does state election law say?
Georgia election laws dictate when, whether, and how a municipality can add its election to the ballot of a county election:
- All special primaries and special elections that are held at the same time as a general primary or a general election “shall be conducted by the poll officers by the use of the same equipment and facilities, insofar as practicable.” State law says nothing about requiring a municipal special election and a county special election—or any other two special elections—to use the same equipment and facilities.
- In an odd-numbered year like 2023, state law requires that “a special primary or special election to fill a vacancy in a county or municipal office shall be held only on one of the following dates which is at least 29 days after the date of the call for the special election….the third Tuesday in March; the third Tuesday in June; the third Tuesday in September; or the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.”
- In nonpartisan races, like Jonesboro’s, “Candidates in special primaries shall be listed alphabetically on the ballot.”
- Sartor wanted to know why the county couldn’t let Jonesboro residents vote in the municipal elections at the various county-run advance voting sites. State law requires a city’s special election be called at least 90 days before a presidential or statewide election if the city wants it added to the countywide ballot and use the county’s machines: “If the times specified for the closing of the registration list for a special primary or special election are the same as those for a general primary or general election, the candidates and questions in such special primary or special election shall be included on the ballot for such general primary or general election. In such an instance, the name of the office and the candidates in such special primary or special election shall appear on the ballot in the position where such names would ordinarily appear if such contest was a general primary or general election.” Under state law, the latest a special primary election can be held is 29 days after it’s been called. However, when a special primary or special election coincides with a presidential preference primary, statewide general primary, or statewide general election, the local special primary or local special election has to be called at least 90 days beforehand. But, that 90-day requirement doesn’t apply when the local special primary or local special election is “held on the same date as such presidential preference primary, state-wide general primary, or state-wide general election but conducted completely separate and apart from such state-wide general primary or state-wide general election using different ballots or voting equipment, facilities, poll workers, and paperwork.” Day resigned on August 16, 2022, 83 days before the November 7, 2022 election. That means the City of Jonesboro has to hold its municipal election separately—and that voters in the City of Jonesboro will have to go to two different polling places: one for the city election and another for the sheriff’s race.
- All municipal offices are for four-year terms unless municipal law is different. In the upcoming Jonesboro special election, because two sitting councilmembers are running for mayor, that means voters also will have to choose two new councilmembers. All of Jonesboro’s council seats are at-large and nominally nonpartisan, which means the top vote-getters fill those seats. However, candidates in the March special election will need to decide whose seat they want to fill: Sartor’s term ends in December of this year, which means whoever runs for her seat will have to run again this November, while Sebo-Hand’s term runs through 2025.
Potential Jonesboro City Council candidates include:
- former Jonesboro councilman Alfred Dixon
- attorney Don Dixon
- Clayton County GOP secretary Arlene Charles
- Crane Hardware CEO Jarrett “Jabbo” Miller