Leader Blues

Monday, August 25, 2008

TOP STORY > >Election-commission chairman walks out

Leader senior staff writer

“The Lonoke County Election Commission no longer has the capability to conduct countywide elections,” commission chairman Larry Clarke angrily told the quorum court on Thursday, before storming out of the meeting, then resigning.

“This is the direct result of the loss of storage and office space in the Cabot Mini Mall,” according to Clarke.

He said the loss of election commission space was part of a power struggle between County Judge Charlie Troutman, a Democrat, and county Republicans.

Larry Clarke, a Republican, said he would be replaced by former election commissioner and former Cabot Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, or else someone appointed by Stumbaugh.

Clarke’s wife, Lynn Weeks Clarke, is a Republican justice of the peace in Lonoke County. She and her fellow Republicans have been engaged in an increasingly mean political struggle with Troutman, both sides playing hardball.

Troutman on Friday denied that taking the space from the election commission and giving it to the State Police was related to Lynn Clarke’s confrontations with him.

Larry Clarke, who did the lion’s share of the work to bring Lonoke County elections from the dark ages to the high-speed digital world, said that Troutman had kicked the commission out of its already inadequate space and given it to the State Police.

Only a few years ago, it took four days to get election results, but in the primaries last May, election officials began packing up about 9:30 p.m.

It’s unclear who will run the electronic election in Clarke’s absence, but if it’s election software company ES and S, Clarke says that will be quite expensive.

School board elections are in September and testing of the county’s 104 machines for the November election should begin in early October, Clarke said.

Usually amiable, Clarke was loud and declarative, accusing Troutman of reneging on promises to provide permanent storage space for the Ivotronic touch-screen voting machines, probably at the county courthouse annex.

“This equipment is worth close to a half million dollars for 32,000 voters and they can’t pony up 12 grand a year for storage/office space,” Clarke said later. “That’s incompetence.”

While Larry Clarke was talking, Troutman got up and left the room.

“I had to relieve myself and I’m trying to send a message,” said Troutman Friday. “I don’t give a damn (about Clarke’s accusations),” he said.

“I was totally shocked that those machines were put in a JP’s garage,” Troutman said.

“We had machines in my home two years, 40 of them, waiting for the judge to find storage space. I’ve conducted logic and accuracy tests on sidewalks in Cabot and in my driveway,” Clarke said. “This is inappropriate for a county this size.”

“I stored that at home for two years because judge, you promised me space. You promised me space in this building,” Clarke said of the courthouse annex.

Troutman said he never promised space in the annex for the machines.

Currently, some voting machines are in the garage portion of the annex, but it’s neither heated nor climate controlled and other county equipment is stored there.

Clarke said the annex was not a good permanent solution because as a CSEPP facility, Office of Emergency Services Director Jimmy Depriest needed to keep the building secure, while the election commissioners and workers were volunteers who needed to do their work on nights and weekends.

Lynn Clarke is running for reelection in November against Democrat Barry Weathers, so Troutman said state law requires taking her name off the ballot if her husband is running the election.

Troutman said that the commission had somehow tested the logic and accuracy of the machines in every race dating back to 2004, when the county first got the machines, and he thought they’d do so again.

“An election will go on as always,” Troutman said. “Ever since we had these machines, where did they check? I’m sure come November 4, the election will go on.”

The judge has in recent months vetoed one action taken led by Republicans on the court and also overturned another action by convening a county court, of which he is judge.

The Republicans, for their part, have been bringing to the quorum court meetings allegations of what they say is malfeasance or illegal self dealing by the judge.

Troutman has been under investigation by the State Police for about one year to see if he broke the law by using county equipment, employees and materials to chip-seal part of a drive at a service station owned by his son and his daughter-in-law, Jodie Troutman. She is a justice of the peace.

Troutman said that his son had let the county use several parcels of land around the county to store and transfer chip-seal materials and that it was only fair to do that favor. Plus, he said, his son paid the county.

“Everybody in this room expects the results accurate and on time,” Clarke said. “The election commission is asking for assistance because of zero cooperation from Charlie Troutman.”

Clarke said sufficient, secure, climate- controlled storage for the computerized voting machines could be leased in the Cabot area for $12,000 a year.

JP Larry Odom said he knew of two places the commission could use for office and storage space in the Cabot area, but declined to say where because he wanted to talk first to the owner.

Odom, a Republican, is nonetheless on the outs with the other Republicans, and Clarke said Odom was just trying to support Troutman, a Democrat. He called Odom a county judge wannabe.