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.

New elected officials sworn in for Gilmer before 2021

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Among the final acts for Gilmer County’s government in 2020 comes the official swearing in for elected positions. Now that the local elections have long since completed and been finalized, these officials are preparing to take office as soon as January 1, 2021, now that they have been sworn in.

Sworn

Doug Pritchett, left, receives his oath of office from Probate Judge Scott Chastain, right.

While many positions were re-elections like Hubert Parker moving from the special elected term to fill in for the remaining term of former Commissioner Dallas Miller, others are fresh faces in new positions like Gilmer Magistrate Judge Kevin Johnson.

In the realm of the Board of Education, new members Joe Pflueger and Michael Parks met with Probate Judge Scott Chastain to take their oaths on Friday, December 18, 2020. Additionally, Doug Pritchett also renewed his oath of office as he was re-elected after filling in for the remaining time of the previous term.

Sworn

Michael Parks, left, receives his oath of office from Probate Judge Scott Chastain, right.

Two weeks before the new year and their own first days in the position, they met in Courtroom D of the Gilmer County Courthouse for a ceremony with close friends and relatives. Owing to the virus and procedures against it, each brought a very small group to witness the event.

Doug Pritchett was sworn in under oath with his wife, Lynne Pritchett, holding the bible for him.

Michael Parks was sworn in under oath with his wife, Donna Parks, holding the bible for him.

Sworn

Joe Pflueger, left, receives his oath of office from Probate Judge Scott Chastain, right.

Joe Pflueger was sworn in under oath with his wife, Jeris Pflueger, holding the bible for him.

Each member swore two oaths, one for the office and the responsibilities associated with it, and another as a loyalty oath to people and the government,

Chastain told FYN that these would be the final oaths as he had previously administered much of the other renewals during the same day.

Kevin Johnson, left, receives his oath of office from Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, right.

However, Kevin Johnson, newly elected Magistrate Judge of Gilmer County, received his oath of office on Thursday, December 17, 2020. He was sworn in by Judge Brenda Weaver in the presence of current Magistrate Judge Roger Kincaid and Probate Judge Scott Chastain.

 

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.”

Clerks

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.”

County responds as Probate Judge tests positive for COVID-19 after revival

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County Probate Judge Scott Chastain has confirmed that he has tested positive for COVID-19, commonly called the Coronavirus.

While sources have spoken recently about employees in the Gilmer County Courthouse having been exposed, Chastain himself has reached out to inform the public that he has tested positive. There are still indications of others in the courthouse having been exposed, but with an official confirmation, responses will be increased and sanitization orders are already in effect from yesterday’s Judicial Emergency Order.

Offices are shut down, however, FYN’s understanding is that the general courthouse is still open and the Sheriff’s Office is continuing to remain open in service to the public in the face of the positive test.

exposures

Gilmer County Courthouse

Speaking with Gilmer County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Paris, the Gilmer Courthouse is continuing as ordered under the Judicial Order to close offices and courts. He stated that certain employees are still in offices in an isolated area answering phone calls and doing work that cannot be performed from home, but the offices are closed to physical access by the public.

Paris stated that he has notified employees within the Board of Commissioners office and has also notified department heads who are notifying their employees about exposures within the courthouse. Utilizing a rotation style operation in some departments, employees are still able to access their offices for filings or needs and operate phones and services while minimizing contact and risk in the building.

Other Elected Officials are operating and notifying employees in their areas as they see fit under their own jurisdictions.

While this operation is continuing for this week, Paris said that the entire courthouse building will shut down this Friday, July 10, 2020, in order for Restoration 1, a company out of Dawsonville certified for this type of cleaning, to operate, clean, and release a sanitizing mist within the building. Shutting down Friday will allow the mist to settle over the weekend before anyone returns to the courthouse.

Additionally, Monday, July 13, 2020, officials will reconvene after the cleaning and time has allowed additional testing to return on certain employees. Paris said that they will have to make a decision at that time about the continued operations or closures as needed with the information available then.

Paris did say that the Board of Commissioners are making every attempt to spread awareness of the possibility of exposure through news outlets, their websites, and phone calls. He stated that he has already received calls from citizens inquiring about the courthouse and a positive test. Paris suggested that citizens who may have visited the courthouse in recent days speak with their doctors about their situation and possible exposure and to follow testing as they order. He stated that as he is not a medical professional, he can only suggest this course of action for people.

Paris did say he has been in contact with the Health Department, informing them of the situation and the current steps being taken. Working in conjunction with them as well as local and state guidelines, he gave thanks and commended Judge Weaver on her quick response and action to the situation saying that he believes they have mitigated as much of the risk and exposure as they possibly could.

He went on to add that his hope is for people to take the situation and the virus seriously and be considerate of others and their capability to spread the virus even if they are not at risk from it.

Currently, sources say that Chastain’s contraction of the virus came from a Revival meeting at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Cartecay last week. FYN has reached out to the church for more information and is currently awaiting responses from church leaders. The church did cancel remaining services on July 4, 2020, as soon as first notice of someone running a fever and exhibiting symptoms was brought to them.

Our current understanding is church members are being contacted via the church line and suggestions to be tested have been issued in conjunction with guidelines from Health Departments. As with Revival Services of this type, it can be hard to keep up with numbers, but reports indicate that church officials are working diligently to contact and spread information so that any who may have attended services might be made aware.

FYN is attempting to contact Pastor Jamie Smith, but with large groups, it may not be possible to tell exactly who could have been the initial case or where it was contracted from before.

Additionally, FYN is now reaching out to officials in the and the Gilmer County Health Department about the positive test and their plans on sanitizing, quarantining, and contact tracing those who may have come into or worked in the courthouse. Jennifer King, North Georgia Health District Public Information Officer and Risk Communicator, said she is in contact with the Gilmer Branch and FYN is currently awaiting information from her as it becomes available.

Stay with us as more details become available on this story.

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