By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When former Dallas city election manager Jeff Watson announced 14 months ago he had accepted a job as elections administrator for Denton County, he thought the new position was an opportunity he just couldn't pass up.
The new gig came with expanded responsibilities in a considerably larger political arena, which for Watson amounted to a step up the career ladder in the chaotic world of elections administration. At the time, Watson also saw the job as a chance to move his growing family into a less urban and, theoretically at least, more tranquil part of the state.
Little did Watson know that he was stepping into the middle of what one local pol calls a "festering hotbed" of infighting among Republicans, who now are on the eve of securing a political monopoly in that sprawling, suburbanized county to the north.
"I got up there, and it was just a maelstrom of things coming at me from all directions," says Watson, who wears a T-shirt bearing the Texas flag and urging people to vote because "everyone matters." Now, however, Watson is a person who no longer matters to the voters of Denton County. On Friday, Watson's bosses abruptly decided to fire him during a meeting of the county's five-member Elections Commission, which consists of four Republicans and a lone Democrat. The unanimous vote, which is expected to be approved by Denton County Commissioners on Tuesday, came amid complaints that Watson had demonstrated a "failure of management at its basic levels" during the November general election. The news of Watson's dismissal has stunned his former colleagues in Dallas, where Watson was known as a consummate professional who stood out among his peers at City Hall for his ability to work well with candidates and members of the public alike.
In Denton, Watson's departure has prompted concerns that the Republican majority there is unwilling to allow the county's new Elections Administration Office to operate as an independent, nonpartisan office in accordance with state law.
"I'm real upset and sorry for Jeff. He's an absolute pro," says Bob Sloan, the former Dallas city secretary who supervised Watson during his two-and-a-half-year tenure with the city and who says he can't imagine what went wrong in Denton. "I don't know what's going on up there."
The slow, steady toll of the courthouse bell rang out at 11 a.m. last Friday, just as the members of the Denton County Elections Commission prepared to announce their verdict on Watson's future employment with the county.
Officially, the commissioners were there to publicly debate and vote on the matter, but clearly they had already made up their minds. In fact, Watson's dismissal was so much of a foregone conclusion that Watson himself didn't bother to attend the meeting and fight for his job.
Earlier in the week, County Judge Jeff Moseley handed Watson a prepared letter of resignation and told him to sign it or be fired. Watson had refused to sign, believing that doing so would constitute an admission of wrongdoing, so this meeting was just a formality and would be over in minutes.
"I have lost confidence in our Elections Administration," commission member and Republican Party chairman Richard Hayes told a room of reporters. "I observed a failure of management at its basic levels."
Hayes referred to the November 3 general election, during which several ballot-counting machines malfunctioned and caused a delay in the tabulation of votes that lasted until 4:30 a.m. To the commissioners, the equipment problem added to a list of foul-ups that supposedly demonstrate Watson's inability to manage.
According to the commission members, Watson was guilty of failing to train his staff or hire enough staff, neglecting to clean up a storage room, failing to secure the ballots, and even failing to purchase a $5 power cord. After all the dirty laundry was aired, commission members took television crews on a tour of a disheveled county warehouse, which provided documentary evidence that Watson's 14 months on the job were a failure.
"He tried to be the Lone Ranger, and he has no one to blame but himself," Hayes said of Watson. "I'm glad he's not in charge of NASA."
What Hayes and the other commission members failed to share during the meeting, however, was that some of the problems they were heaping on Watson's shoulders were pre-existing problems that Watson had identified after he was hired and, later, brought to his bosses' attention. Chief among them was a shortage of personnel due to a high turnover rate and a voter registration system that was in disarray.
Before Watson's arrival in Denton, the job of running the county's elections was a function of the county clerk's office. But in 1997, the county shifted the duties to an elections administrator system. County clerks are elected, and therefore members of political parties; the new system was designed to ensure fairness by putting a nonpartisan person in charge of running elections.
Watson was Denton County's first elections administrator, and the transition to the new, nonpartisan system was much more difficult than he had anticipated.
"I made a few attempts to inform them how the system was supposed to be set up, and I was rebuffed," Watson says. "It started to become clear to me that I was answering to the elections commission, which is a very partisan board, and to the commissioners court, which is a very partisan board."