County backs off from creating Board of Elections

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Once again returning to conversations of an election board in Gilmer County, the Board of Commissioners is putting the agenda item to create a board on hold.

According to Commission Chairman Charlie Paris, the BOC will not host the agenda item on every meeting as previously planned. The decision came among the board’s agreement after Paris reported that he thought it best to seek an alternative path due to his investigations and considerations of the board’s make-up.

Paris said, “When I got to looking around some at Elections Boards, what I found is that yeah almost all counties have them, but a lot of counties are having a lot of problems with them.”

Paris noted Fulton County specifically whose election board is denying legal requests for documents. He also noted reported problems in Fannin County where board members won’t speak to each other.

Paris said, “I don’t believe the two parties can hold civil conversation between themselves nowadays.” Though he noted that he previously believed Gilmer might be one of the few places it could occur, he no longer felt that way.

Acknowledging that elections have grown, Paris said he understood that elections are so minutely watched and that the work is substantially larger than it used to be.

The discussion continued with Post Commissioner Hubert Parker saying he agreed with not moving forward on an election board until the alternative has been studied.

Scott Chastain, Elections,

Gilmer County Probate Judge Scott Chastain

That alternative that the Board of Commissioners agreed to pursue and the Probate Judge Scott Chastain is currently looking into, involves reconfiguring the Probate Office to possibly include some extra staff to “offload” some of that work.

What the Probate Office would use this staff for in off years without elections is yet to be discussed. However, the concept is in very early stages as both entities continue to look for a path forward.

Post Commissioner Karleen Ferguson said, “I think that’s fantastic because that group has done a fantastic job with our elections.”

Paris echoed the sentiment saying Gilmer is among the few counties, in his opinion, that had a flawless election.

With a solid path forward for the commissioners, Paris made a final note that he told Judge Chastain that if there was a push in state legislation to force a Board of Elections, Gilmer would “fight it tooth and nail.”

However, Paris was also quick to note that while he shared this with Judge Chastain, it was not as a threat. Rather he wanted him to know the county’s stance. Paris said the conversation was “not contentious.” He went on to add that Chastain has been very civil in all conversations considering the county’s path forward for elections.

Probate Judge Chastain addresses commissioner questions in email

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – With the continuing process of such a “major change” for Gilmer County on the horizon, the Board of Commissioners have continued questioning the need, process, make-up, and representation for an Elections Board outside of the Probate Office for the county.

Continuing the discussion this month, Probate Judge Scott Chastain spoke with Commissioners about the board again. However, he had also been answering commissioners questions outside of meetings, too. Delving into the idea, Post 1 Commissioner Hubert Parker had issued questions to Chastain via email in order to garner more information.

Parker asked three questions of the Probate Judge. Upon request, the Board of Commissioners have provided that email to the public. The following are Chastain’s answers for the Board of Elections, in his own words.

What is the problem or situation we are attempting to solve?

One of the problems I am facing is the amount of work that I have to do in my office as the Probate Judge. As the numbers increase here in Gilmer County, the more volume of work I will see in my office. Another problem I face is as an elected official that Is over elections, when I am on the ballot, I cannot have any involvement with the elections. I have to appoint three people and pay them to monitor the elections in my absence but ultimately, if something goes wrong, I am still the Election Superintendent and would be responsible for the outcome. I do not like that nor believe it to be fair. They tell me that I cannot have anything to do with the election but then hold me accountable if something goes wrong. I am attempting to fix a couple of things by requesting a Board of Registration and Elections. I am trying to assure the citizens of Gilmer County that they have someone or a board that can focus entirely on the registration and elections here in Gilmer County. I feel as though my other responsibilities and duties are keeping me from being able to do that. I am trying to restore confidence in our election process by removing the administration of elections by an elected official that appears on the ballot. I am also trying to preserve the right of Gilmer County to create this board on their own without the intervention from the State of Georgia. As I previously stated, it is just a matter of time before every county in Georgia has a board. With 31 Probate Judges left as Election Superintendents and 29 of those Judges wanting it removed from their office now, it is only a matter of time before Gilmer County will be forced to create one and I would rather us have the flexibility to create it now instead of like they tell us to.

How are elections handled now? What is your role and what is Tammy’s role?

I am not sure if you mean specifically or just generally. Right now, Tammy Watkins is in charge of registration and all early voting, including absentee ballots. My role is to over see the election side of it. Most of that will happen the day of election. I am also in charge of all qualifying and filing of the elected officials reports. Tammy does a large portion of that now. Tammy and I proof all ballots, order the ballots, order election supplies, Logistic and Accuracy testing of the election equipment, notifications in the news paper, sample ballot in the news paper, recruit poll workers, train poll workers, secure polling places, deliver all election equipment to polling places, Election Day support for poll workers, election results, upload election results, email election results to the state, pick up equipment from polling places, consolidate the election results, etc. Of course, Tammy and I have a wonderful team of folks to help us do all of this because there is no way one person could do it all. I also prepare a budget each year for elections and I am required to attend several hours of training in elections. Tammy also attends this training. I am also in charge of changing and/or consolidating precincts.

Generally, boards serve as an oversight function and do not handle the daily operations. What role do you think they would play in this situation?

I know that Tammy has several connections with nearby counties that have created boards in the past and I know that there are a few of them that have active working boards. Tammy would not be in favor of just an oversight board. This board would need to be active in the workings of an election. Tammy would have more insight into that than I would. I understand your concern and I respect it. I do not want to create a problem or burden for the county and that is why I am advocating for this board. With the increase of the workload in my office, if the elections remain, I will be forced to add staff in the coming years or worse, I will make a mistake because I am trying to do to much at one time. Both of these outcomes will cost the county more money. Tammy and I are already doing duplicate work at times. Because we are both trying to be sure that elections are ran the best they can be, we sometimes do the same task when it only needs to be done once. We both are responding to emails and phones calls at the same time, we both are trying to fix the same problem at the same time. We both attend training and we both have budgets related to elections. As you know, I have a Probate Judge budget and an Election budget. If there was a board appointed, Tammy could combine her Registrar budget with the Election budget and therefore eliminate one?

Chastain also offered a final paragraph in response. He stated,

I truly want what is best for Gilmer County. If I didn’t I would have just ask the Commissioners for additional compensation or additional staff. I feel the best thing that could be done right now is to form a board of registration and elections and put people in place to protect our elections by having people able to provide supervision 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Thank you again for seriously considering this proposal. If you have any follow up questions, please feel free to let me know. I look forward to hearing the discussion tomorrow morning.

As previously reported, the Board of Commissioners have yet to make an official resolution, but have been actively discussing and debating the make-up and the way they would like to create a board, indicating that they are likely to move forward with the establishing of such an entity. The coming months will see more details fleshed out on the topic and should provide a clearer picture on specifically how the county will move forward with this item.

Additionally, the Probate Office is set to finish out this year following up on the most recent elections, should anything arise. Chastain agreed with Commissioners about taking time to create the new Election Board. He did request, however, to have the board in place before the beginning preparations of the 2022 Governor’s race are needed.

Teague sworn in as Associate Probate Judge

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Though Gilmer County Probate Judge has said he would be appointing her, and although the move was approved by the Gilmer Board of Commissioners, taking the oath of office is the final step, and the official step, for Gilmer County Probate Court Associate Judge Tracey A. Teague in taking on the position in the coming year.

Judge Scott Chastain said, “She will assume that new role on January 1, 2021. As it stands now, if something happens to me and I am unable to continue my duties as the Probate Judge, the probate office would be left without someone to continue the day to day operations.”

Tracey A. Teague has been an employee of the Probate Office for over 6 years and previously worked for Judge Mullins. She served as the Chief Clerk for Judge Mullins and currently serves in that same role for Judge Chastain. She is a 1992 Gilmer County graduate, she is married to Bobby Teague and has two children, Taylor and Boston.

Chastain previously called Teague a “Lifesaver” in April of last year after her aid in his transition into the office. Now he continued saying, “Tracey has been a tremendous asset to this office and I truly appreciate all she has done to assist me in making the Probate Office in Gilmer County one of the best in Georgia.”

With this oath, as previously reported when Chastain said he wanted to appoint Teague to this position, this will allow Teague to not only step up as the Chief Clerk, but as the actual judge in situations where Chastain is unavailable, in training, or incapacitated. Some might find it strange to think of such contingencies. However, this has already become reality for Gilmer’s Probate Office.

Gilmer County Courthouse

Chastain said, “Back in July when I tested positive for COVID-19, I was not allowed to enter the courthouse for nearly a month. During that time, we got behind on a few things. Across the state of Georgia, Probate Courts were hit pretty hard by the virus and unfortunately, we lost three of our Probate Judges and other probate court staff. It was during this time, the Council for Probate Judges suggested that we all look at the possibility of something happening to us and what it would do to our office and citizens of the county.”

With that suggestion, Chastain began looking at his options and at those serving in clerk capacities under him. Those clerks have already achieved a great deal in the office, according to Chastain who just celebrated state certification for two more clerks as well as that making every clerk in the office certified. At the same time, he is moving forward after administering the oaths and responsibilities to Teague.

Chastain said, “By law, the Probate Judge has the authority to appoint an Associate Judge. It requires that the Probate Judge seek approval of that appointment from the governing body of the county. A few weeks ago, I sent a request to the Board of Commissioners asking them to approve the appointment of Tracey A. Teague. They approved my request at a public meeting on October 28, 2020.”

Gilmer Probate recognizes Clerks state certification

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County’s Probate Office has recognized achievements for two of its clerks as they have reached 90 hours of state training to become “Certified Probate Clerks.”

Probate Clerk Jennifer West, right, receives her certification from Gilmer Probate Judge Scott Chastain, left.

Probate Judge Scott Chastain presented both Jennifer Carney and Jennifer West with certificates for their state certification at a ceremony this week.

Chastain said, “Carney is a deputy probate clerk who focuses most of her time on probate matters, but is also very capable of doing just about anything that needs to be done in the office. West is a deputy probate clerk who focuses most of her time assisting citizens with general questions, marriage licenses, weapon carry licenses, paying traffic citations, death and birth certificates and many other duties at the front window.”

The training is administered and approved by the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education and the Council of Probate Judges. Chastain noted last year that these programs offer a recognition for 30 hours and 60 hours of training for the program.

Speaking to both Carney and West, Chastain said, “I am extremely proud of these ladies and their tremendous accomplishment.”

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Probate Clerk Jennifer Carney, right, receives her certification from Gilmer Probate Judge Scott Chastain, left.

While this week celebrated and recognized these two clerks for their accomplishments, this day also represents another step for the Probate Office. In April 2019, Judge Chastain stated a goal that he wanted to have all five staff members state certified.

Now, with the completion of the 90-hour certification program, Gilmer County now has all five of the probate clerks state certified. This is includes Jennifer Carney, Jana Grno, Lyndsay Hightower, Tracy Teague, and Jennifer West. The previous three, Jana Grno, Tracy Teague, and Lyndsay Hightower, were recognized last April.

With this, according to Chastain, there are currently 12 Probate Offices in the state of Georgia that have all of their clerk’s state certified. However, Chastain added, “I believe Gilmer County is the only county in Georgia that has a staff of five and all of them are certified.”

Gilmer amid statewide recount and audit of elections

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County and its Probate Court are deep amid recounting ballots today as they join in what Chief Registrar Tammy Watkins is calling both an audit and a recount for the Presidential Election of 2020.

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With employees from the Probate Office, Registrars, and some other volunteers, officials are fully confident in finishing the counting by Tuesday night.

A major stress on certain county offices, this major process has drawn in employees from both the Probate Office and Registrar’s Office to undertake recounting every one of the 16,576 ballots cast in Gilmer County, according to viewers and officials present at the recount.

Begun on Friday, November 14, 2o20, the process is being undertaken in the Jury Assembly Room of the Gilmer County Courthouse. Gilmer Probate Judge Scott Chastain said they used the Jury Assembly Room to allow public access and viewing of the audit, as required by law. However, he said the room also allowed for social distancing between tables and for space so that one table would not accidentally hear someone from the next table over possibly causing some confusion.

Chastain told FYN that the process was going well on Friday, and they have been looking at the progress daily. Scheduled to count through today and ending tomorrow, Tuesday, November 17, 2020, they actually have until midnight on Wednesday to finish the count. This means that if something happens, the county does have a buffer of one extra day just in case.

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Registrar Sherri Jones, left, helps alongside Gary Watkins, right, in the 2020 recount and audit of the Presidential Election on November 13, 2020.

Nearly twenty people at some times helping the process with including some floating staff that comes and goes, Chastain said that eleven core people including the elections review board are constantly working through the process.

Chastain and Watkins are both confident in the speed they have been accomplishing the task and are both fully confident in finishing in the scheduled time.

One of the major points of note in this process, those involved in recounting the ballots are only counting the presidential election. Chastain said this was a concern of his in the beginning. He worried that they would be needing to recount every vote in every race. Instead, focusing only on the presidential race is also helping in accomplishing the recount and audit with speed.

Moving forward, two very different outcomes could mean two very different futures for Georgia. Should the audit come up with different numbers than what the computers accounted for, Chastain said, “When we’re finished statewide, my hope is what the machines said is what we come up with. Because if we have different numbers than the machines, it’s not going to be a good situation statewide.”

recount

A part of the statewide audit and recount, Gilmer County is going through 16,576 ballots through day-of, in-person-early, and absentee voting.

Chief Registrar Tammy Watkins echoed a similar thought saying that the recount could prove to be a test for the election equipment statewide. Watkins has also voiced, in previous interviews, her faith in Gilmer’s elections staff and poll workers and has been happy with the efforts that Gilmer has put forth in elections.

This specific election has seen records broken in terms of those visiting in early voting as well as absentee ballots. Yet, this phrase is beginning to lose some of its impact as Gilmer has repeatedly increased in the numbers this year in each of the election days throughout local, state, and federal offices.

Regardless of what the audit comes up with, some are still concerned that hand counts could become a common thing in future elections with parties constantly claiming instances of voter fraud and suppression as well as other things. However, nothing concrete has been reported yet.

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