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Records draw more questions about Milton election committee

MILTON, Ga. — Formed to wrest control of local elections from Fulton County and ensure integrity at the ballot box, Milton’s Municipal Election Feasibility Committee has itself come under scrutiny.

Residents have raised questions about possible ulterior motives and political leanings among the panel’s six members.

The panel was intended to represent three groups: the City Council, city staff and Milton residents. But, in remarks to the committee a number of residents have recently raised concerns with the panel makeup.

At the committee’s Aug. 22 meeting, several residents came forward during public comment alleging partisanship among panel members.

Milton City Councilman and committee member Rick Mohrig countered that Milton’s municipal elections are a nonpartisan issue.

The committee consists of two Milton City Council members, Mohrig and Paul Moore, Deputy City Manager Stacey Inglis, City Clerk Tammy Lowit and residents Mark Amick and Lisa Cauley.

Milton Elections (copy)

Members of Milton’s Municipal Election Feasibility Committee gather on the second floor of City Hall for a meeting June 15. From left are: Paul Moore, Rick Mohrig, Lisa Cauley, Stacey Inglis, Tammy Lowit and Mark Amick.

The committee, formalized in April 2022, has been tasked with studying the feasibility of Milton running its own local elections. Milton paid Fulton County $84,671 to run its 2021 municipal general election and another $70,368 to conduct a runoff election in late November, according to the contract agreement.

Over the past few months, panel members have researched costs, protocols, equipment and staffing required to run a city election.

Along the way, experienced residents have given suggestions. The committee also hosted election overseers from Peachtree Corners, which has conducted its own municipal elections since its 2012 incorporation.

Peachtree Corners, with half the land area but about the same population as Milton, spent $50,687 for its November 2021 municipal general election.

Milton City Manager Steve Krokoff said interest in local control over the municipal election dates back to July 2021, when residents disputed the contract with Fulton County for that year’s municipal election. Residents cited concerns of integrity in the 2020 General Election and additional costs in the intergovernmental agreement.

Both issues were restated in a draft of the committee’s final report presented at the Aug. 22 meeting.

Openness and transparency

For Krokoff, the rationale to include city staff on the committee was so they could reach out to co-workers if more expertise was needed for the analysis.

Council members were included, Krokoff said, to ensure that efforts remain in line with what the City Council's expectations were of the assessment.

Community members on the panel serve to add transparency and potential expertise. Krokoff noted that many came and spoke about the issue at several council meetings.

From the outset, there wasn’t always clarity on whether the committee meetings would be open to the public.

At the Nov. 15 City Council meeting, former Mayor Joe Lockwood brought up concern about opening the study to the public.

Current Mayor Peyton Jamison, then a council member, asked, “I’m assuming all these meetings will be open to the public, correct?”

Krokoff said he didn’t think that was the case, based on how the City Council was approaching the issue.

Georgia’s Open Meetings Act requires that meetings of every “department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, authority, or similar body of each such county, city, or other political subdivision of the state” be open to the public.

Jamison urged that every meeting should be open to the public.

“We’re talking about elections. It should probably be an open meeting. That’s just my two cents,” Jamison said.

Lockwood responded by expressing the need for a plan that would prompt public feedback.

By the end of the meeting, it was decided that Krokoff would convene the group of six to start the process to draft objectives.

An Open Records request filed with the city Aug. 31 turned up emails indicating that there were about half a dozen meetings held before the committee was formalized at the April 18 City Council meeting. No announcement or advertisement of the informal meetings could be located.

Krokoff said he clearly stated at the Nov. 15, 2021, meeting that the “group of six” would be an “informal feasibility study group” that would “start the process.”

“Paul Frickey, a partner with the law firm that represents Milton (Jarrard & Davis), noted that what was contemplated at the Nov. 15 meeting was not a ‘formal committee,’ though the City Council could make it one at a later time,” Krokoff said. “And, to emphasize the informality of that first step, no council vote was taken. It is the case, however, that the council clearly envisioned the eventual transition of the informal assembly to a more formal committee that would move forward publicly.”

In an email dated April 18, Deputy City Manager Inglis said the meetings going forward would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, which would require a public notice at least 24 hours in advance. In the same email, she also said that the committee would be “blind-copied” as to avoid “reply all” per guidelines of the Act.

The first official committee meeting was in June.

While not a “formal committee,” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo said the informal meetings held before April should have followed guidelines per the Open Meetings Act.

City Council members

The names of all six committee members were announced at the Nov. 15 City Council meeting.

Krokoff said Councilman Mohrig and Councilman Moore volunteered.

According to Mohrig’s profile on the Milton government website, his service pre-dates the city’s incorporation, having served on the Milton Organizing Committee. Mohrig was elected to his first term on the City Council in 2006 and returned in 2013.

Mohrig was asked about any experience related to election work, but he did not answer the question.

Cost has repeatedly been cited as a key issue, but when asked about other benefits to self-operated elections, Mohrig did not respond. However, he did expound on the issue of cost through an email.

“With the large increase in cost associated with Fulton County’s administration of the City’s 2021 Milton Municipal Election, and no apparent willingness by Fulton to charge Milton (only) the incremental costs it would incur by administering our election (as has been provided in all previous Milton Elections), the Council wisely decided to take a hard look to see if administering its own municipal elections would be: 1. Feasible from a procedural perspective; and, 2. Cost effective,” Mohrig wrote.

Mohrig was also asked whether he thinks he can maintain impartiality on the panel to guarantee a free and open election to all residents, regardless of their political affiliations and beliefs.

In his emailed response, Mohrig reinforced sentiments he stated at the Aug. 22 committee meeting.

“All committee proceedings have been open and transparent and will continue to be,” he wrote. “Moreover, municipal elections are nonpartisan, and the process of conducting an election is and should be completely neutral as to political affiliation.”

Krokoff said members of the City Council suggested resident names. Mohrig appointed resident Lisa Cauley to the committee, he said.

Mohrig did not respond to questions relating to Cauley’s appointment.

Moore was elected to the City Council in 2019. He previously served for 13 years as former Mayor Lockwood’s appointee to the Milton Planning Commission.

Moore has called Milton home for 23 years and was “a regular voice at the podium, speaking in front of the Fulton County Commissioners to advocate for a thoughtful, conservative plan for development and community growth,” according to his profile.

Moore faced recent controversy when an ethics panel determined Aug. 30 that he violated ethics policy when he voted to defer a decision to provide city funding for traffic calming devices within his neighborhood.

Moore could not be reached for comment.

Jamison wrote in a Sept. 2 email that the ethics panel findings and Moore’s ability to continue to function as a member of the City Council and the Election Feasibility Committee are “entirely unrelated.”

Resident committee members

The residents named to the committee were known to have election experience, Krokoff said.

Cauley, the president of Fulton County Republican Women, did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Krokoff and Jamison could not recall who nominated resident Mark Amick, who served as a statewide poll watcher and testified at a Georgia Government Affairs hearing on the 2020 election. Amick has stated on numerous occasions he witnessed irregularities at different polling sites during the 2020 election process.

Amick, who also could not be reached for comment, was subpoenaed in June as part of a Fulton County investigation into Republican attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Krokoff said he could not find who nominated Amick to the Milton Municipal Election Feasibility Committee.

“It must have been a phone call,” he said.

Krokoff also said that the nomination could have come from a former council member no longer serving.

The Open Records request sought emails relating to the elections committee dating back to Oct. 1, 2021, through April 2022. None mention any formal process by which Amick was nominated. In fact, all six current committee members appear in a Nov. 15 email and a response the following day.

Milton Executive Aide Susan Wilmath said that there were no emails containing the search criteria up to the first email listed.

Mayor Jamison said the city's legal team has assessed the situation regarding the Fulton County investigation of 2020 election irregularities and has determined that Amick’s current status does not legally affect his ability to participate on the election feasibility committee.

City staff panelists

Krokoff spoke to the qualifications of the two city staff panel members.

As city clerk, Lowit is the de facto election superintendent. Lowit said she has had some election experience assisting in the 2021 municipal election.

“It helped me to understand what qualifying a member is like, the collection of the data, the accuracy of keeping our deadlines adhered to,” Lowit said.

Krokoff selected Inglis for her ability to pull city resources, like expert city personnel, as his executive right-hand.

Inglis said she’s been working in local government since 2001 and that her project management experience helps move the study along in an orderly fashion. Inglis has taken the lead on compiling information for the study. At the Aug. 22 meeting, she presented a draft of the committee’s final report and cost spreadsheet.

Determining feasibility

It’s important to look at the study’s objectives, Krokoff said.

“It's not just whether we can,” he said. “We already know legally we can. It comes down to whether it’s practically and financially in our best interest to do so.”

The resolution, which was adopted to formalize the committee, states the committee will have six months or 180 days from the date of its approval to meet and solidify their findings into a product that they can then bring back to the City Council. The resolution also states that the committee will automatically be terminated come that date.

Committee members have two meetings left before they must present their findings to the Milton City Council Oct. 16. Members discussed asking for an extension, pending whatever progress is made before the next meeting on Sept. 15.

Once the deadline rolls around, Mayor Jamison said the committee will relay its report to staff who will forward it to the full council.

When asked if residents' concerns would be considered in the decision-making process, Jamison said, “Absolutely.”

Krokoff said public comments are “very important” to the City Council.

“I’ve seen many times where decisions are changed as a result of the things they hear from members of the community,” Krokoff said. “They're certainly, without a doubt, influenced by those public comments.”

Reach Amber Perry at 770-847-8334. Follow her on Twitter @ambermarieperry