Wise County Democratic Party Chair Tracy Smith dropped her head in her hands as the judge announced his ruling shortly after noon Friday at the Wise County Courthouse.
Judge R.H. Wallace Jr. of Fort Worth’s 96th District Court denied the injunction Smith had requested against interim Elections Administrator Jim Parker and the Wise County Elections Commission.
“I think the spirit of the law was not adhered to,” she said afterward. “I don’t feel like the intent of the law was followed, either. It’s unfortunate.”
Several witnesses testified during the two-hour hearing before a crowd of about 20.
Smith’s attorney, Steve Maxwell, who is chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said most of the facts in this case were not in dispute.
The Elections Commission appointed Parker interim EA Sept. 23 to replace Lannie Noble, who had resigned to accept the same position in Denton County. At the time of Parker’s appointment, he was a vice chair of the Wise County Republican Party. He turned in his letter of resignation to Party Chair Allen Williamson immediately following the appointment.
At the same meeting, they accepted Noble’s resignation letter, which stated he intended to work through Sept. 26. Later in the week of Sept. 23, a resolution naming Parker interim elections administrator was submitted to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, and it said Parker would assume duties of the office Sept. 23.
Smith had refused to sign the document because she said it was an illegal appointment. She filed the lawsuit Sept. 30, and on Oct. 8, the commission reconvened to clarify its appointment and amend the resolution to reflect a start date for Parker of Sept. 29.
“The disputed issue of fact is whether Mr. Noble was to remain on the job until Sept. 26 or not,” he said. “Our position is not only was that not discussed in the meeting, but an order of an elections administrator appointment was entered on that very day, Sept. 23.”
He also said the proper procedure was not for the commission to amend the document but instead re-do the appointment in accordance with the law.
Maxwell cited 31.035 in the Election Code, which says in part, “A county elections administrator may not be a candidate for a public office or an office of a political party, hold a public office, or hold an office of or position in a political party. At the time an administrator becomes a candidate or accepts an office or position in violation of this subsection, the administrator vacates the position of the administrator.”
Since Parker’s appointment, resignation, and start date all appeared to be the same date – the 23rd – they said it was in violation of the statue.
County Attorney James Stainton disagreed with that interpretation in his opening statement.
“Mr. Maxwell interprets the statute in one direction that if at any time you hold two positions, you’re automatically out,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what the statute says. It says if you’re an administrator and you take an affirmative act to put yourself in a position in a political party, then you are out.”
Stainton also said he didn’t think the Oct. 8 meeting was improper because the change was made to reflect the original intent of the commission.
“Our contention continues to be that the meeting on the 8th was to clarify the will and desire of the commission, and even so … in the first place, we don’t think anything was improper at (the time of the appointment),” he said.
Smith, a staff accountant at a firm in Denton, was the first to take the stand. She’s been chair of the Democratic Party since August of 2013.
She said that although the date of Noble’s last day with the county was in his resignation letter, it was not specifically discussed in the Sept. 23 meeting.
Stainton asked her if discussion was necessary because she and the other commission members had the letter in their hands.
“I wouldn’t call it, ‘There was no need for a discussion,'” she said.
“You had the letter in your hand saying the 26th … everyone else had the letter,” he said. “You didn’t feel the need to challenge the date being the 26th or otherwise bring it up in any form or fashion did you?” he asked.
Smith said she didn’t know it would be necessary before finally answering the question.
Stainton also asked Smith what her impression was on the 23rd of when Parker was to take office, and she said there was “no impression.”
“Despite the fact that you had the letter stating (Noble’s) last day in office was the 26th?” Stainton asked.
Smith insisted the letter was the “intent” of Mr. Nobles, not necessarily the intent of the commission.
She went on to testify that Parker began work before Noble’s last day on Sept. 26. She said her husband received a letter from Parker postmarked Sept. 24 about election judge training in October.
Also on the 24th, she said Parker called her, in the capacity of elections administrator, to notify her that Democratic campaign signs in Bridgeport needed to be moved because they were illegally placed.
When questioned, she admitted the letter she received was not signed by Parker.
“Was it possible that he had no knowledge of that being sent out?” Stainton asked.
Smith didn’t answer the question and instead said Parker was working at the office.
“Were you in the office? Did you see him in the office?” asked Stainton.
“No, I did not,” she said.
“Did he call you from the office phone number?” Stainton asked in reference to the campaign sign conversation.
She said she assumed he did.
“You don’t really know, do you?” he said.
Smith insisted she did.
Deputy Elections Administrator Karen Valenzuela testified, revealing more details about the letter sent from the EA office with Parker’s name on it.
She said she wrote the letter and put the names on it, which included Parker’s, hers and that of Deputy Voter Registrar Luis Valdez. She said this was the same form letter that her department sends every year. “I was letting the election judges know who the new elections administrator would be,” she said.
She said she was instructed to send the letter by Noble, and Parker did not know about the letter prior to it being sent.
Parker also testified, stating his first knowledge of the letter was when his wife, who is an election official, received it.
He also said his phone conversation about signs with Smith was more of a courtesy call and that he, Smith and other party representatives regularly talk about signs and placement and wording of signs and try to give each other a heads-up if they hear of something being wrong.
“Our conversation about the signs lasted maybe two or three minutes,” he said. He said the rest of the conversation was about an upcoming Halloween party and he and his wife’s decision to buy an RV.
He testified that he did not call her in the capacity of elections administrator.
Others testifying in the case included Lee Foster of Alvord, a Democratic precinct chair; County Clerk Sherry Lemon; and Wise County Republican Party Chair Allen Williamson.
After the ruling was announced, Williamson told the Messenger he felt confident going into today’s proceedings.
“On behalf of myself personally, I want to thank Stainton for the work he did,” he said. “He prepared for this case very well and … we believed that we would prevail, and we appreciate the system and the court’s time.”
Smith said she didn’t know what the Democratic Party’s next step would be as she had not yet discussed that with her attorney.
She said she does have concerns about how the November election will be run.