Happy Faces Personnel Group doesn’t deserve the criticism it’s endured lately regarding how it has provided temporary staffing for Fulton County’s elections, its personnel manager said.
“When negative comments are made about our organization, we typically do not respond in a public forum,” Catherine Robinson said. “Truth needs no defense. Recently so many targeted attacks against us have resulted in violent threats against my staff. So I feel compelled to speak.”
Robinson talked in defense of Happy Faces at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ July 14 meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta, where the group voted 4-3 to approve Happy Faces’ $7.7 million contract for the 2021 election cycle in its third attempt.
Commissioners voted along party lines, with Democrats Robb Pitts, Natalie Hall, Marvin Arrington Jr. and Khadijah Abdur-Rahman voting yes and Republicans Liz Hausmann, Bob Ellis and Lee Morris voting no.
The board’s motions to approve the contract failed at its May 19 and June 2 meetings, and it was removed from the agenda at its June 16 meeting. At those three meetings combined, the vast majority of individuals speaking during the public comment period on the topic said they opposed it.
Some of the criticisms aimed at Happy Faces included perceptions that the Tucker-based business was partisan, that Georgia Democratic leader Stacey Abrams had part ownership in it and that its employees worked for Fulton on Election Day, did not all live inside the county and did not care about the job they were assigned.
But both Robinson and Richard Barron, the county’s elections and registration director, said those things weren’t true. Robinson said Happy Faces only is hired for early voting, is nonpartisan and only recruits Fulton residents for this job and strives for diversity in hiring.
“Happy Faces has been receiving death threats,” Barron said. “They’re losing their top recruiter. They’re putting in surveillance equipment because they don’t even feel safe in their own office.”
Though the county has been criticized for its reliance on temporary workers, including partnering with Happy Faces for seven years, Barron said the company saves the county money due to the fact that starting around 2015, its supplemental staff could no longer work as full-time employees because of the Affordable Cares Act’s definition of full-timers as anyone working at least 30 hours a week.
But with the Happy Faces contract’s approval uncertain, Barron took heat from two commissioners for sending a July 8 memo to Fulton’s cities’ mayors warning them that if the pact was not passed by the board, the cities may have to foot the bill for this year’s election instead of the county.
Ellis argued that Barron didn’t include in the memo a Plan B for how the county could staff its 2021 election cycle.
“Here we are, sitting at the last minute, again debating this issue, and there’s basically a gun to our head (saying), ‘If you don’t pass it, basically with the municipal elections, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull it off,” he said, later adding, “That memo to me borders on insubordination.”
In response to Ellis’ earlier comments, Barron said the county’s Plan B was to partner with the human resources to set up a special category of temporary employees and to hire 12 more employees to help with the interview process, but it would take more time to implement and put the county about a month behind. He also said he was told by the county’s board of registration and elections to send the memo and even warned them the mayors may react negatively to it.
At that point Hausmann cut Barron off, saying, “I talked to two members, the chairman and another member, when I started getting calls from mayors wondering what in the world was going on, and they were unaware it was going out.”
In response, Barron said, “I talked to (elections board chair) Alex (Wan) after that. … He was not aware of when I sent the memo, but the (elections board) was aware I sent the memo to the mayors.”
Hausmann countered by saying, “They don’t recall it that way. We received a lot of public comment on this topic. I just want to say on the record I received 60 emails against going forward with this plan for the host of reasons we’ve outlined over and over again.”
Hall defended Barron, saying she interpreted the memo to include info on Plan B on page 2. But she also said since the board of commissioners had the authority to fire him, “that kind of makes us your bosses.”
“I would say that before you make any major move, you will want to consult your bosses before doing something like sending out an alarming memo to your mayors,” she said.
Barron’s employment has been in flux since February, when the elections board fired him but the board of commissioners’ votes to accept and reject that decision have failed several times, keeping him on the job. Also, the latter group has received differing legal interpretations of their authority to terminate him from both its former and current county attorneys, complicating the matter.
At least one commissioner also expressed concern about a recent media report regarding problems with past Fulton elections.