UPDATE: Legends chosen as polling site
by Kellen Short
The Watauga County Board of Elections withdrew its plan to combine three Boone precincts in a unanimous vote Wednesday.
But it ignored the advice of the veteran elections director and the ASU Student Union director when it voted 2-1 to move the Boone 2 polling place from the Plemmons Student Union to Legends, an on-campus entertainment venue.
Chairman Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto voted in favor of the move despite the arguments of board member Kathleen Campbell, who said the Linville Falls Room in the new Student Union addition would be superior.
Campbell said the Linville Falls Room is located adjacent to a 74-car parking lot, offers full handicap accessibility including push-button door openers and has a 24-hour police presence.
She described Legends, located on Hardin Street, as a nightclub "covered with trash and cigarette butts and empty beer bottles" whose atmosphere could irritate people with asthma.
Campbell found agreement with Dave Robertson, ASU's director of student programs, who advocated for the Linville Falls Room.
Robertson said Legends, which he called "an old dog of a building," had flooded three times in the last year and did not have the backup power generators available at the Student Union. In fact, it does not have security lights if the power were to go out, he said.
The building is heated by three "noisy" hanging propane heaters and has no outside ventilation, he added.
People electioneering outside the polling place would stand in the parking lot in order to meet the 50-foot required buffer, he said.
Robertson said he was not sure whether Legends was fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"I happen to think that all of the old concerns about the Student Union have been erased and that now has a significant advantage," he said.
Robertson, a registered Democrat, stressed that the university was committed to hosting a polling site on campus and would work with whichever location the board chose.
Campbell also pressed Hodges, a 27-year elections director, to share her preference on the two options.
Hodges said she would worry about the possibility of flooding or power outages at Legends but said it would probably be easier for unfamiliar voters to find that site than the Student Union.
She also raved about the wheelchair ramp and automatic doors at the Student Union, which she said would save the staff from hiring a poll worker at Legends to assist people who needed help entering.
"I'm not on either side," Hodges said before responding. "I'm on Jane Hodges' side and the Board of Elections' side and the staff's side. ... To make it easy for my staff and myself and my precinct workers, I would have to say (I prefer) the Linville Falls Room."
The statement put the nonpartisan director in a difficult position, as her list of duties approved by the board last month expressly prohibits her from sharing her opinion on such a matter.
"The director shall not become involved in discussion or debate of political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours except to the extent necessary to advise the board whether such location would be in violation of state or federal law or other administrative rule of the State Board of Elections," her list of duties states.
Hodges looked to Eggers for consent before speaking, and he indicated she could proceed in talking about the pros and cons of each site.
Eggers and Aceto spoke in favor of the Legends site, saying the Student Union posed problems enforcing the 50-foot buffer required for electioneering activities.
Legends has been
recommended several times in the past and would better serve the entire Boone 2 precinct, including
those voters who don't live on campus, Eggers said.
"Legends is the most easily accessible site for all of the demographics that live in that area," he said.
He also reiterated earlier concerns that voters may not be able to find the polling place within the expansive Student Union.
"Yes, both these sites could work, but in my opinion ... I think that Legends serves the best purpose for voting," Eggers said.
The Board of Elections staff will soon inform each voter by mail of the change, which is considered permanent, Hodges said. If the site had remained within the Student Union, the advertisement would not have been necessary, she said.
That fact struck a nerve with Commissioner John Welch, who attended the meeting. Welch, a Democrat, questioned afterward whether the county would have to foot the bill for those mailings.
The board also granted one concession to Campbell before voting unanimously to withdraw a previous plan to combine three Boone precincts.
"I certainly support getting rid of the 'superprecinct' ... but even though I agree with the final action, I don't agree with the reasons given," Campbell said.
She objected to claims in the new resolution that the changes had resulted in misinformation and confusion for voters.
"I don't believe the voters are confused about what we did, and I don't believe they were angry because of misinformation," Campbell said, calling it "insulting" to insinuate that voters didn't understand the changes.
She also complained about a line in the resolution that said the board would further study the matter and provide more information "prior to the recombination of this precinct."
"It just makes it sound like, OK, we're going to go through the motions of the study, and then we're going to vote again to have the three precincts combined," she said.
Eggers and Aceto agreed to remove those seven words but not the references to voter confusion and misinformation. Eggers said too much emphasis had been placed on the back entry of the Agricultural Conference Center, which doesn't include sidewalks, and the idea that students would have to take a 40-minute AppalCART ride when a shorter route was available.
"I think there is, in the future, a plan out there that can serve this precinct area better," he said. "At this time, I'm not sure what that is. Yes, my intentions are to try to look and find a better way to solve problems."
Campbell abstained from the vote removing the sentence in the resolution but ultimately voted in favor of the withdrawal.
The board also discussed the style of the meeting minutes, a point of contention during the last meeting. Campbell said she planned to submit for review a set of draft minutes from the Aug. 20 meeting and video of the meeting, pledging to continue submitting those items at each meeting.
She pulled out board minutes from March 2006, when the board was majority Democratic, which she said adequately stated the minority member's objections. She added that a person making a public records request in the future shouldn't have to know that several drafts of the minutes existed.
"I, too, really want to find a common ground for how the minutes should be done," Eggers said, adding that he had no problem adding Campbell's items to the minutes but that the final version needed to be concise.
Campbell also said the board had refused to add to the agenda two items she wanted to discuss: a review of Robert's Rules of Order and a recess to visit the Linville Falls Room at ASU.
Despite the conflicts, the meeting was far more civil than the past two, with board members showing more patience with one another and even sharing in an occasional joke.
"I'm happy to be friendly with you two guys because I'm certainly tired of not being friendly with you two," Campbell said.