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."
Under the system set up by the Legislature, counties may opt to hire an elections administrator. An elections commission has the authority to hire and, together with the county commissioners, fire the elections administrator. In addition, the county commissioners determine the election administrator's salary, staff, and operating expenses. But beyond those duties, the authority of the two bodies is limited, according to a 1988 ruling by the Texas attorney general.
"That statutory scheme indicates that the Legislature intended the elections administrator to be largely independent of both the commissioners court and the election commission," the ruling states. "It also indicates that the Legislature did not intend the election commission to be involved in the day-to-day performance of the administrator's job."
Watson says it didn't take long for him to discover that rather than being allowed to run his office independently, he was expected to report to the Republican-controlled commissioners court and elections commission.
"The Republican Party has two factions inside of it up there, and they're very antagonistic toward each other. Well, the elections office is caught right in the middle of that," Watson says. "It's hard to stay in the middle and just run the election."
Denton City Council member Mike Cochran, one of the few elected Democrats left in Denton, says the Republican factionalism isn't the result of ideological differences, but an aspect of their near total occupation of every elected office.
"Their takeover has become so complete and, now that the Democrats are no longer a threat, they're turning on themselves," Cochran says. "Apparently, Jeff wasn't following party lines."
Cochran is one of a small number of people in Denton who believes Watson's firing is a way for the Republicans to argue that the duties of the elections department should be put back in the hands of a county clerk who will be, for the foreseeable future, a Republican.
As the Democratic chairman of voting Precinct 108, Mike Zimmerman says that he saw the ballot machines jam on election night and that, at the time, there was no question that the delays in tabulation were a result of equipment failure. At no time, Zimmerman says, did he hear any complaints that Watson was responsible for the problem.
"Nobody that I know of said anything about getting rid of Jeff," says Zimmerman, a Democrat who showed up at the courthouse Friday to support Watson. "What I think may be happening here is an attempt to do away with the elections administration officer."
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Ted Lewis, chairman of the county's Democratic Party and an elections commission member who voted for Watson's termination, says he doesn't believe there is any Republican plot afoot to shelve the new system.
"The problem is, there is a lack of organization and established procedures," says Lewis, who adds that he was keeping an open mind about how he would vote Friday but went with the majority because Watson didn't show up at the meeting.
Watson, of course, didn't see any point in going to the meeting even if it would have earned him Lewis' vote, and he doesn't see much point in attending Tuesday's commissioners court meeting, either. At this point, Watson says the desire to work in Denton has faded considerably.
"I'm worried about money, and I don't want to be fired," Watson says, "but I have no problems leaving that job.