Some Fulton County residents and officials have called into question the county’s use of temp agencies to provide workers for its elections.
And that includes Happy Faces Personnel Group, a Tucker-based staffing service up for a $7.7 million contract to provide temporary workers for the 2021 Fulton elections.
District 2 Fulton Commissioner Bob Ellis cited a report from Seven Hills Strategies, the firm that hired independent monitor Carter Jones to spend days watching the county’s voting process before and during the Nov. 3 general election as part of a consent order between the county and State Election Board.
In the Jan. 12 report, Jones said Fulton has relied too heavily on temp agencies for its elections staffing, that some of its temporary workers, who may live outside the county, don’t care about the elections process, leading to errors and other problems at the polls.
“In light of that commentary within this report, I would hope we would see a different type of staffing plan with elections, but that does not appear to be the case,” Ellis said. “It appears to be a continuation of what we had. I think there’s a role for staff within the context of what we do.
“Happy Faces, they’ve served us very well in certain areas of the county for the services they provided, but it would seem we have become overly reliant on temporary staffing on the elections process and perhaps there are ways to engage the public for early voting, signature verification, warehouses, etc., where we haven’t been. I’m not in support of this particular item given some of the feedback we’ve gotten from the monitor.”
He and others spoke about the issue at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ May 19 recess meeting at Assembly Hall, where the group’s vote to approve the contract failed 3-2. Democratic Commissioners Natalie Hall, Marvin Arrington Jr. and Khadijah Abdur-Rahman (Districts 4-6) voted yes, Republican Commissioners Ellis and Liz Hausmann (District 1) dissented, Chair Robb Pitts, a Democrat, was absent and Republican Commissioner Lee Morris (District 3) abstained.
The vote came after a public comment period in which 120 individuals spoke, with 67 saying they oppose the Happy Faces contract and none saying they supported it. The residents speaking out against Happy Faces, a minority-owned business, said it’s a partisan organization.
Also prior to the vote, Arrington said Ellis was playing politics in his complaints over the Happy Faces contract.
“This is the Republicans talking about fraud,” he said. “This has nothing to do with Happy Faces and the job that they did. This is the Trumplicans talking about fraud and this election. There was no fraud in this election. Don’t believe the hype.”
Ellis responded by saying his comments were purely about the county’s reliance on temporary workers and not specifically Happy Faces.
“It’s less about the firm we’re using and more about how we’re choosing to deploy temporary services, and that goes to management,” he said. “Where we have management that utilizes temporary services effectively, that works effectively. When you get over reliant on them, then you potentially run into other issues.”
Nadine Williams, Fulton’s elections equipment manager, defended Happy Faces, saying it stepped up during the 2020 elections when five other temp agencies the county used failed.
“Happy Faces was able to assist us with (solving) those deficiencies,” she said, later adding 87% of the workers Fulton has hired through the company “at this point live in the county. However, Williams said, Senate Bill 202, the state’s new controversial elections reform law, allows these businesses to recruit more employees outside Fulton.
She said Fulton has contracted with Happy Faces for the past seven years, and Felicia Strong Whitaker, the county’s deputy director for purchasing and contract compliance, said the state has hired it for over 20.
Fulton has used it not only for elections but also its community development and senior services departments. For each of this year’s two elections (Nov. 2 general and Nov. 30 runoff), the county plans to hire more than 400 temporary employees through Happy Faces, Williams said. A total of more than 2,000 workers will be hired for both elections.
When asked if delaying the vote to the next meeting would be a problem, she said it would because the county plans to start hiring the staff soon so they can be trained in June.
Several commissioners asked if changing the hiring structure for elections workers, such as using only full-time employees, would help solve the county’s problem with leaning on temp agencies. But Williams said it’s more cost-effective to take the current route.
Ellis and Arrington both said Fulton needs to soon start weaning itself off temp agencies.
“I think we can instruct staff to say, ‘Hey, over the next two years, we want to see a reduction from this reliance on outside contractors to developing a way to have more staff,” Arrington said. “I don’t know if it’s something we can solve between now and November.
“I think the show has to go on while we address the issue, if you will. I don’t want to discount the issue. We need to look at it, but I don’t know if we need to address it now because of the election. Maybe we can reduce it maybe (by) 5 or 10% each year so that that at the end of two to five years, there’s a reduction that makes sense.”
The board could vote on the Happy Faces contract again at its June 2 meeting.
In related news, the board held its vote to reappoint Alex Wan as chair of the Fulton Board of Elections and Registration. Wan was appointed to the position in March after Mary Carole Cooley resigned prior to completing her term, which ends June 30.
Cooley stepped down after the elections board’s February firing of county Elections and Registration Director Richard Barron was not approved by the board of commissioners. If Wan is reappointed, his two-year term would begin July 1.
During the May 19 meeting’s public comment period, 57 individuals said they oppose Wan’s reappointment and none said they supported it. Also, 60 said they supported the board of commissioners upholding the election’s board firing of Barron and none said they opposed it, but at past meetings, residents commenting on the issue have been split.