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Conflict over ballot measure led to Electoral Board resignation

Conflict over ballot measure led to Electoral Board resignation

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Tammy Belinsky resignation letter

Following her verbal resignation at the Aug. 18 meeting of the Floyd Electoral Board, Secretary Tammy Belinsky sent her official resignation letter to the board.

Disagreements among members of Floyd County’s Electoral Board about how to address the county’s Confederate monument eventually led to the resignation of Electoral Board Secretary Tammy Belinsky on Aug. 26, according to emails obtained by the Floyd Press via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Earlier this summer, following the murder by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a Black man accused of using a counterfeit bill, uprisings against police brutality and in favor of racial justice occurred all over the country, including in Floyd County. Localities—particularly in the South—that still maintained Confederate monuments heard calls to remove them, as critics said they were Jim Crow Era relics meant to intimidate Black residents. Demonstrators in Floyd made similar demands, sparking a debate that spanned several Town Council and Board of Supervisors meetings in June, July and August.

Those in favor of preserving the Confederate monument that stands on Floyd’s court house lawn called it an essential piece of local history, which honors the sacrifices made by those who fought on behalf of Floyd County in the Civil War. Arguments in favor of removal centered on the monument’s perceived racist history, as it was one of many erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s, and as the Civil War was mainly about whether to allow the continued enslavement of Black people.

Floyd Electoral Board members Tammy Belinsky, Brecc Avellar and Bob Smith had a debate about the monument that mirrored the one unfolding during public comment periods, emails obtained by the Floyd Press show.

The Board of Supervisors has authority over county property, including the monument, and discussed potentially putting the issue to nonbinding referendum on November’s ballot. The deadline to take such action was Aug. 14. On July 7, the Floyd Electoral Board sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors which they interpreted as discouragement to place the issue on the ballot, although Electoral Board Chairman Bob Smith objected to that characterization of the letter in an email to the rest of the Board.

Speaking to the Press, Belinsky said the decision to send the letter was “unanimous” and was related to concerns about voter intimidation at the polls, should such a polarizing issue as the monument be placed on the ballot. Belinsky compared a yes-or-no vote on the monument to agreement or disagreement with racism.

In an email discussion, Smith fiercely objected to adding voter intimidation concerns to the agenda of the regularly scheduled July 28 Electoral Board meeting. He wrote on July 27, “Until or unless we have an actionable report or threat, I see no reason to discuss the subject of ‘voter intimidation’ at this time.” Furthermore, he said, “I find the introduction of ‘voter intimidation’ as a specific agenda item to be both inflammatory and partisan, particularly in light of recent items published in the media which I feel were completely inappropriate (and) not reflective of the Board as a whole,” referring to Belinsky’s comments about racism.

“Acting as Chairman and the minority member, I signed this letter…because I could reasonably agree with the majority stating that we believe we will in fact, be facing potential challenges to the management of the (election) this November. Items we discussed included very strong and polarized voter turnout with concern for voter safety,” he said, but said the Board did not discuss intimidation specifically, nor did it take a firm position on whether the referendum should proceed. Smith is the only Republican on the Board—per state law, two members of the governor’s party and one member of the second-most-popular party are appointed to each locality’s Electoral Board.

Earlier drafts of the letter that was eventually emailed to the Board of Supervisors, however, show that at least one version, proposed by Belinsky and reviewed by the full Electoral Board, did explicitly mention voter intimidation. In Belinsky’s draft of the letter, the Board writes, “Please consider the negative impact of your decision on Election Day management. Although elections officials are charged with the authority to regulate voter intimidation under Virginia Code, we ask that you not put us in such a position on Election Day.” That draft was sent to General Registrar Amy Ingram, Avellar and Smith.

The letter sent to the Board of Supervisors instead read: “Please consider the potential impact of your decision on Election Day management. As our Elections Officials are charged with the authority to regulate voter conduct under Virginia Code, we ask that you not put us in an even more challenging position.”

Belinsky’s draft also asked that the Board of Supervisors reach a decision about the Confederate monument “without using registered voters’ preference, by referendum, to inform the course of action,” while the final letter asked that “the Board (of Supervisors) consider the views of all citizens, not just registered voters, to inform your action.”

On July 28, following the Electoral Board’s meeting, Smith received an email from election officer Linda Wagner calling for Belinsky’s resignation, which Smith then forwarded to other members of the Board. The email read, “Over the years, (Belinsky) has shown her political biases at training sessions while she should have been acting as an unbiased representative.” Wagner referenced the Floyd Press’ coverage of the Electoral Board letter, and wrote, “It is the time to take immediate action.”

Smith did not comment directly on Wagner’s email, but for his part, has also engaged in political activity and expressed political opinions while chairman of the Electoral Board. At a July 28 Board of Supervisors meeting, Smith spoke in support of a referendum on the Confederate monument, the opposite position of the letter he co-signed, and said the county deserved a “numerical, empirical reflection of views.” Smith also is involved with the Floyd County Republican Party and has attended mini-campaign rallies in support of President Donald Trump on recent Friday evenings in front of the Floyd County Court House.

While members of the Electoral Board are tasked with administering elections in fair and nonpartisan ways, they are appointed from a political party—they are by nature political actors, and not prohibited from acting as such in their private lives or in comments to the press.

On Aug. 17, Belinsky replied to Smith’s July 27 email about whether “actionable reports or threats” of voter intimidation existed for the November election with a call for his resignation from the Board. “The basis for the Electoral Board concern is a well-documented incident of Confederate flag-waving with the Trump name printed on the flag, at precinct 301 on Election Day in 2016,” Belinsky wrote. She continued, “That was an act of voter intimidation…I am not aware of any attempts at voter intimidation on Election Day, other than that behavior by Trump voters.”

She alleged in her email that following her comments to the Floyd Press, Smith “would not talk to me, which I find exceptionally unprofessional” and “objected to discussing, head-on…the flurry of interest in the Electoral Board’s request to the Board of Supervisors to consider the impact of placing a referendum on the ballot.”

Belinsky also mentioned in her email Smith’s repeated support for the referendum at public meetings and his association with Floyd’s citizen militia, saying, “Your extreme behavior…calls for a Voting Rights Act investigation. I am asking you to resign your position.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial discrimination in voting, and prohibits state and local governments from taking actions that result in discrimination against minorities.

Smith responded that her email gave him “grave concern for (her) current state-of-mind” and called the accusations against him “unfounded” and “untrue.” Smith urged Belinsky to take a leave of absence from the Board. However, later that same day, Smith wrote to Avellar and Ingram calling Belinsky’s email “slanderous” and “threatening” and saying he could no longer work with her on the Board.

At the Aug. 18 meeting of the Electoral Board, Belinsky offered her verbal resignation.

Emails show that Avellar tried to keep the peace, writing to Smith, “Tammy’s term on the EB expires in February 2021. If she does not formally resign, could we work through this election and let her term expire? Having her organizational skills through this election would be valuable. Let’s please wait through this week to make a decision.”

Smith wrote back, “I acted against my better judgement in signing that damned letter (to the Board of Supervisors). I simply have to insist that she stand by her words today.”

On Aug. 26, Belinsky sent her formal letter of resignation from the Electoral Board, “due to the lack of trust of Robert C. Smith, who has politicized the Electoral Board and thereby tainted the integrity of the institution.” John Hopkins, the chairman of Floyd County Democrats, will be tasked with finding Belinsky’s replacement.

In an emailed comment provided the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 9, Smith wrote, “I would like to say that we will miss the skills that Tammy provided to the Board, and deeply appreciate the time which she committed to county service over the years…Our Electoral Board is now focused on the task of reconstituting itself to full staff in order to fulfill our obligation to the citizens of the county.”

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