Monroe County election prep continues, Hilton rejected as poll worker training space

Poll workers for Monroe County’s May 3 primary elections won’t be trained at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Instead they’ll learn the ins and outs of working the polls at the county government center in the Showers building on Morton Street, or the new election operations center at 3rd and Walnut streets. That’s the former NAPA building.

When county commissioners came to the $4,880 item on their Wednesday agenda, an early indication that they would not be approving it came from Penny Githens. “I don’t understand why we’re asking county taxpayers to pay close to $5,000 when we have space, I thought, in the Showers building for the training,” Githens said.

Deliberations on the item were continued to a work session following the regular meeting. A $1,000 down payment that was paid to Hilton last fall was eventually determined to be refundable, which cleared the way to a 0–3 vote by commissioners on the item.

The rejection of the county clerk’s request to pay for space at the Hilton Garden Inn can be analyzed as part of ongoing friction between the clerk’s office and the election board over space allocations.

Other election-related items on Wednesday’s agenda won easy approval, including a $200,000 contract with B&L IT Services for a year’s worth of election support services. Deputy clerk Tressia Martin told commissioners that the B&L sets up all the poll sites, handles ADA compliance, ensures internet connectivity, organizes equipment storage, and creates polling location maps and an equipment catalog.

One of the election-related items on the agenda turned out not to need approval from commissioners at all. That’s because Hart Intercivic, the manufacturer of the county’s voting equipment, had waived a $4,450 fee. The amount was supposed to cover the preparation of a test deck of ballots for the logic and accuracy test (LAT).

The LAT, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 8 a.m. on Thursday (March 17) at Election Central. That’s the former Johnson Hardware building at 7th and Madison streets.

When commissioners came to the LAT test deck item on their agenda, deputy clerk Tressia Martin told them, “I love saying these words: I don’t need the money. They are going to do it for us.”

Two election-related items on Wednesday’s agenda involved conversion of the former NAPA building at 3rd and Walnut streets to an election operations center, which will serve as the county’s location for early in-person voting.

A change order for Strauser Construction, which is handling the interior remodeling, added $6,735 to the $42,845 contract that was approved by commissioners in early March. The county’s facility and fleet manager, Greg Crohn, told commissioners the increased amount was needed to cover a bigger ballot room than had been designed originally.

The original design was for a 12-by-20-foot room. The election division had requested an increase to 16-by-24 to allow for additional shelving and operation space, Crohn said.

Also related to the old NAPA building conversion was a $5,000 contract with Matrix Integration for help in building a firewall for the computer network that has to be installed. Monroe County chief technology officer Eric Evans told commissioners, “We have really had to scramble around—you just can’t go out and buy firewalls anymore.”

Evans said he’s planning to take an old firewall that was replaced last year, re-build it, and put it in place at the new elections operations center.

Evans told commissioners that it’s not election information that will be transmitted over the network. Instead it will be data from the surveillance cameras from the swipe locks, as well as some desktop computers that will be used for doing office organizational work. In any case, an encrypted wide area network node has to be set up, Evans said.

Evans alluded to last year’s wrangling between the commissioners and the election board over space allocations, when he said, “The challenge we have with the NAPA building…is we arrived at that as an early voting site months and months after we should have—in terms of getting the computer infrastructure in place to use it.”

Commissioners put off the Hilton Garden Inn item involving election training space until their work session, which typically takes place immediately after the regular meeting. That gave county attorney Lee Baker enough time to sort out the status of the $1,000 deposit that had been paid last fall.

Baker told commissioners he’d spoken to the sales representative at Hilton, who initially said that it was nonrefundable. But after discussing the status of the legal document—specifically the fact that it had not been approved and signed by the commissioners—the sales representative changed course. The $1,000 would be refunded, if the commissioners decided not to accept the Hilton Garden Inn as an authorized services site, Baker said.

The fact that the $1,000 had been paid in the first place, without an authorization from the commissioners, drew some scrutiny. County councilor Marty Hawk, who was weighing in through the Zoom video-conference platform, wanted to know what fund the money had been paid out of. It had been drawn from an election fund. Hawk also wanted to know how the money got paid without approval by the commissioners.

The commissioners administrator, Angie Purdie, put that issue in the context of oversight procedures that have since been put in place: “It’s not just the clerk’s office—this was something that’s kind of fallen through the cracks by other departments.”

Purdie said that the auditor’s office had been assuming that departments had actually gone through the correct processes. Now they have to include at least the page from the contract with signatures from the board of commissioners on it, Purdie said.