Brown wants Elections Board’s Watts ouster, Watts cries foul

Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown.

Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown wants to remove Marilyn Watts as the Republican Party-appointed representative to the Fayette County Board of Elections.

Details of the complaint were kept mum at a Tuesday meeting of the Fayette County Republican Party’s executive committee. But Watts said Tuesday that Brown’s complaint is the same he aired recently: that she shouldn’t have worked for the Newt Gingrich campaign after she was appointed to the elections board earlier this year.

The complaint is groundless, Watts said, because Georgia law governing the conduct of elections board members only prevents them from campaigning “while in the course of their duties.”

“Whenever anybody joins a board or becomes an officer in a party, they don’t give up their constitutional right to free speech and what they do in their private time,” Watts said, pointing to members of the state elections board who also participate in political campaigns.

Watts said she was concerned that Brown was trying to interfere with the operations of the elections board.

“I’ve never heard of an elected official trying to interfere with a board of elections,” Watts said, noting that the board of elections was designed to be immune to political pressures. “It’s actually improper for him to be going after me, and he also went after Addison, too.”

Addison Lester was appointed to the elections board in March 2011 on a 3-2 vote from the Fayette County Commission.

Watts noted that the allegations put a black eye on the elections board and incorrectly malign its position of public trust.

Watts has served 13 years on the elections board, most of which were at the pleasure of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners, which replaced her last year when Lester was selected instead. In January, Watts was appointed to serve on the elections board as the Republican Party representative of the three-member panel.

Watts noted that she withdrew from her position with the Gingrich campaign in January to avoid any appearance of impropriety, adding that Brown is saying he called the campaign in February and was told that Watts was still the Fayette County chairperson for the Gingrich campaign.

Watts said it’s likely that her name hadn’t been deleted from other lists kept by the campaign.

A report on Brown’s complaint was slated to be heard last week by the Fayette County Republican Party, which appointed Watts to the position several months ago. The report was tabled since Watts has hired an attorney to represent her interests who was unable to attend the meeting to defend her.

There was also a dispute over the fact that the written report, which has been circulated to several high-ranking local Republicans, was not disseminated to the entire executive committee.

Committee member Bob Ross has prepared the report and had planned to present his findings and recommendations at the April 10 executive committee meeting. Ross indicated the probe was looking at determining if an unfavorable light was cast on the integrity of the elections process.

Republican Party attorney Jim Webb interrupted Ross before he could present the report, noting that Watts’ attorney asked for the matter to be deferred until he could be present. He recommended the committee not take any action.

“I don’t think it’s fair to her for you to take action without first talking to her attorney and knowing what her attorney says,” Webb said, adding that he felt the party could discuss the issue.

Ross said he has collected a number of facts, reviewed Georgia elections law and relevant bylaws developed back in 2008. The final draft of the report was then transmitted to the party chairman, Watts’ son Lane, and the party vice-chair.

Ross said his report has 12 exhibits and a list of findings along with some recommendations he was prepared to report on.

Webb made a motion to defer the matter until Marilyn Watts’ attorney could be present. It passed on a voice vote.

The committee is expected to take up the matter at its next meeting.

Following the vote, committee member Denise Ognio asked if the report could be circulated so the full committee could understand the matter.

“I’m asking if I can get a copy of what Bob researched so I can see what’s being said,” Ognio said. “I have no clue what’s being said and I would like a copy of it.”

Vice chair Paul Ploener, who moderated the discussion, suggested that releasing the report at this point would be the same as discussing the matter at the meeting.

Ognio said she disagreed.

Ross suggested having Watts’ attorney look at the report and suggest any changes before it is forwarded to the rest of the committee.

“I look at this stuff pretty seriously because you are talking about not only the character of our party, but somebody’s individual reputation,” Ross said. “That’s why my distribution has been limited to the leadership and the two principals that are involved.”

Ross told Ognio that he wanted to avoid distributing further copies because he may end up amending the report.

Ognio replied that the problem was the rest of the executive committee “has no idea what y’all are even talking about ... and you’re asking us to vote on something.”

Webb suggested seeing if Watts’ attorney objected to distributing the report to the full committee, and if not the party could do that before the next meeting “where we get into the merits of this.”

“I just want to make sure this is an executive board meeting and not a dictatorship,” Ognio said. “And if we’re going to be an executive board, we need to know what’s going on and we do not know what you guys are talking about.”

Webb said he also does not know what’s in the report, but the goal was to protect everyone’s rights and handle the issue “in a fair way.”

Ploener said Ognio would get to see the report.