Two local groups have issued statements about Zoom video-conference footage from a Monday meeting between county commissioners and the county election board, to discuss needs for physical space.
“One of our commissioners openly mocked our elected county clerk on screen,” reads part of the statement from the Monroe County chapter of the National Organization for Women about the video footage.
Naming the commissioner and the clerk was a statement from the Monroe County Black Democratic Caucus, issued by its president, William Hosea: “Monroe County Commissioner Lee Jones appears to be openly mocking the person who’s speaking. The target of her contemptuous disdain is Monroe County clerk Nicole Browne.”
Reached by The B Square, Jones said the target of her disdain was her cat. Jones says the cat was playing with yarn from a knitting project that Jones was unraveling, and hit her computer keyboard, switching on her camera.
Jones is one of three county commissioners and represents District 1, on the west side of the county, but is elected by voters countywide. As county clerk, Browne is also elected by voters countywide. The seats for both four-year terms are up for election in 2022.
On Tuesday morning, Browne also issued a statement about the video footage from the previous day’s meeting. According to Browne’s statement, she was not aware of Jone’s expression in real time during the meeting, but reviewed it afterwards.
From Browne’s statement:
“I…was disheartened with what I saw. I ascribe to the late Dr. Maya Angelou’s adage that, “When people show you who they are, believe them, the first time.” People cannot stop being who they truly are. Sadly, this is evidenced by the footage from the work group meeting. Equally as sad to admit, this was not my first glimpse of a tone deaf response when it comes to the needs of the Monroe County Clerk’s Office. This is who the Commissioner truly is.
Reached by The B Square by phone on Tuesday, Browne said she had written the statement before she was aware of an email that Jones had sent Monday night, which described how Jones’s expression had been directed towards her cat.
After reading the email from Jones, Browne said, she stands by her statement.
At the time of Jones’s expression during the meeting, Browne was speaking, but was off camera. Browne was responding to commissioner Julie Thomas’s remarks about flooding—by talking about the need to keep the electronic poll books safe from floodwater.
When Browne began her speaking turn, Jones was not on camera. Sometimes elected officials turn off their cameras during meetings as a countermeasure against a poor internet connection. Jones told The B Square that’s why her camera was off at the time.
Just after Jones appears on screen, she tilts her head back and forth with expressive facial and mouth movements that indicate some kind of utterance with a negative attitude. Jones’s mic is not on.
What Browne says just before Jones’s animated expression is, “That’s quite a lot of money invested in those electronic poll books.”
Is Jones repeating some of Browne’s words?
Jones says that the words she’s speaking on the video are directed towards her cat: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” According to Jones, she was at the time unraveling a knitting project she had decided she didn’t like. “It’s just a nice mindless task, just keeps my hands busy,” Jones said.
Jone continued, “So, my cat is very interested in knitting and she jumped up. And in the process of swiping a ball of yarn, she hit my keypad and turned my video on and knocked the ball of yarn off onto the floor, where it rolled under a table.”
Jones concluded, “I shook my head and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’…not in any way directed at Nicole.”
Jones allowed that the recent friction between the commissioners and the election board, which includes the clerk, could contribute to the interpretation that her expression was directed towards Browne.
“I get how all of this came about. There’s been a difficult situation surrounding election arrangements this year,” Jones said. She continued, “So when people saw this, you know, I’m sure that it was natural to put the worst interpretation on it.”
Commissioners and the election board have been tussling about physical space needs for elections over the last several weeks.
Dragged into the policy questions on space have been some personal issues. At the weekly commissioners work session on Oct. 6, Browne responded to commissioners’ remarks made at a previous meeting, about their individual service as election workers.
Browne put it like this: “Unfortunately, I was only able to locate payroll records for one of the board members.”
Browne continued, “I know that the Monroe County voters join me in gratitude for [commissioner Julie Thomas’s] service in the 2011 general election, in which she served as a poll worker and for her service as an early and absentee worker in the 2014 general election.”
Later in the meeting, Jones responded, “I’m a little offended that you implied that I had lied about being an election worker—which I most certainly was, in probably five different elections. So I did not appreciate that. I don’t lie.”
Browne followed up by saying, “Commissioner Jones, thank you for your service. I simply am indicating that I was not able to find records showing that we paid you for that service. We went back as far as 2011.”
On the policy question, commissioners have indicated that at least for the next election cycle, they’re not willing to consider allocating to the election division both floors of the old Johnson Hardware building at 7th and Madison (aka Election Central).
Part of their reluctance to take that approach in the short term is based on the fact that a new home would need to be found for the probation offices that currently occupy the second floor of the building.
Commissioners also see it as a more pressing issue to identify additional satellite locations for early voting. As commissioner Julie Thomas put it at the Oct. 7 election board meeting, which she attended as a guest, “In addition to using that main floor of Election Central for voting, we strongly encourage the election board to consider creating additional satellite locations that are not downtown.”
Thomas added, “We have contacts all throughout this community. You know, we could think of township offices and fire stations and all kinds of places everywhere, where this could be really convenient and a great thing for our community.”
The wrinkle with additional satellite early voting locations is that under state law they require unanimous approval of the three election board members. In that respect, satellite early voting locations are like election day vote centers.
In addition to the county clerk, the election board includes appointees from the Democratic Party and the Republic Party.
At Monday’s meeting, Browne described the challenge for getting agreement on satellite voting locations: “A satellite facility at the university is considered to favor one party. A satellite in a more rural area is considered to benefit another party.”
At Monday’s meeting, Republican Party appointee Hal Turner reported that there was not unanimous agreement on some of the proposed locations for satellite early voting, but gave a glimmer of hope. Turner said, “We were not unanimous. But this effort doesn’t have to stop at this point. We can still keep looking at other locations for satellite voting.”
About the footage from Monday’s meeting that prompted the statements from the Monroe County NOW and the Black Democratic Caucus, Jones indicated a worry. She thinks it might have undercut positive movement on the question of physical space needs for the election division.
Jones said, “My biggest concern is that this might have set that back. I felt that we were making some progress.”