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Swain elections board hires lawyer for county dispute

swainSwain County Board of Elections has retained an attorney to provide guidance on an ongoing dispute between the board and the county regarding retirement benefits for Elections Director Joan Weeks.

John Herrin, board of elections chairman, said the board unanimously approved hiring Donald Wright on a $2,500 retainer contract to assist the board with legal questions moving forward. Wright retired last year after serving for almost 30 years as general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

“We sought the most experienced attorney we could find for dealing with issues of election law at a reasonable cost,” Herrin said. 

For more than 10 years, the Board of Elections has been trying to get the county to pony up more money for Weeks’ retirement benefits. With little response from past and current commissioners, Herrin told the commissioners in March that his next move would be to seek legal action. 

The elections board claims Weeks is owed more retirement benefits — an estimated $76,000 — because she should have been enrolled in the county’s retirement plan since she became the director in 1983. However, Weeks wasn’t enrolled for benefits until she became a fulltime director in 1992. 

County Manager Kevin King said the county’s policy at the time was that part-time employees weren’t eligible for the retirement plan. A part-time employee was defined as anyone working less than 1,000 hours a year, which equals out to about 23 hours a week.

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Herrin argued that the state didn’t distinguish between part-time and full-time status for elections directors and that his documentation would prove the director was due her retirement since the day she started. 

With the commissioners’ ruling that the county doesn’t owe any more money to Weeks, the two parties reached an impasse. Herrin said that gridlock became more apparent during this year’s budget process when the commissioners denied the elections board’s request for additional compensation for Weeks. 

The elections board has decided to turn over all of its findings to the state board of elections with the hope that the state board can review it and make a suggestion on what action the Swain election board should take next. The board signed a contract with Wright in the meantime to help them along the way. The board will fund the contract from its own budget, which was approved by the county commissioners. 

Commissioners called a special meeting Aug. 24 for the purpose of going into closed session to consult with County Attorney Kim Lay regarding the board of elections’ request for legal services. 

“We needed to clarify what the commissioners’ role was in approving a legal contract for board of elections,” King said. 

But it turns out the county’s signature wasn’t needed as the board of elections already approved the contract to come out of its own budget. King said the election board is allowed to use the services of the county attorney without charge but chose not to on this issue.  

 “We’ve always allowed them to use the county attorney, but they wanted to hire their own lawyer and we couldn’t say no because if they have money in their budget to pay for an attorney they can do it,” he said.  

Herrin said the elections board chose to hire its own attorney because of the possible conflict of interest the county attorney has to represent both parties. 

“In our frame of mind, the county attorney has a conflict of interest,” Herrin said. “If this thing ever goes to court with the county we don’t know who we’ll be talking to — our attorney or the county’s attorney.”

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