Surry County Clerk of Court Teresa O’Dell recently met with her staff to outline what they could, and could not do, to campaign on her behalf.
She also told them, in a memo distributed to her staff on March 27, they would be required to campaign for her, at times taking paid vacation leave in order to do so. (A full text of the memo is at the end of this article.)
Wednesday, after questions about the legality and ethics of her memo surfaced, O’Dell — who is facing a nomination challenge from Neil Brendle in the May 8 primary — said there was a misunderstanding and that she never meant to require anyone to work on her behalf.
“There is not and never will be a requirement to work on my campaign in order to be a member of the Clerk of Court staff,” she wrote to The News. “Unfortunately, the memo implied seemed to indicate otherwise (sic).”
Two items on the memo specifically state to staffers, “You will be required to …” and then lists the tasks her employees will be required to perform — one stating employees would have to take vacation leave to work the polls on May 8, the other requiring employees to attend the GOP candidate forum on April 7 and bring O’Dell campaign signs to the event.
In another item, the memo states she will be “asking” staffers to go out with her on Saturdays or during the week. She instructs them to take vacation leave for those times.
Whether that memo was in accordance with state election law is uncertain.
“You may not use your official position to coerce or influence other employees for political purposes,” states a memorandum from the Office of General Counsel, Administrative Office of the Courts, which was sent to Clerks of Superior Court, assistant clerks and deputy clerks on Feb. 13, to advise them regarding political activity in clerk’s offices and relevant policies and statutes.
The General Counsel memo also states, “NCAOC (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts) employees may not campaign or provide support (including clerical, legal, or telephone support) to an election campaign during work hours or using State equipment. Such use would be improper.”
O’Dell’s memo follows this directive when she advises staff, “Do not politic on the job!” and to use vacation time for campaign activities which her memo requires of them.
O’Dell also informs staffers, “I will not be in the office very often in the next 35 days. I am hitting the campaign trail hard,” and tells employees to go to assistants for guidance with questions.
On Wednesday, O’Dell indicated she did not think being out of the office campaigning would hurt the clerk’s office.
“I have assistants here,” she said in response to the quality of service being provided to citizens during her extended absences from her office.
“I will be going in and out, and will be checking emails,” she said.
Susan Jarrell, Surry director of elections, was not sure if vacation time given to a campaign by employees required to do so would qualify as an in-kind campaign contribution.
“Just taking vacation time to work for a campaign would not be a contribution,” Jarrell said.
But if it were required? “I’m not sure. That sounds like you’ve got another kind of issue.” Jarrell consulted state election officials for a more thorough answer, and their response was not immediately available.
“That was not my intent,” O’Dell said, when saying the memo was misunderstood. “That’s why I wanted to clarify what I meant.”
Her clarifying letter to the clerk of court staff read:
“I regret that there was some misunderstanding about the memo dated March 27, 2018. There is not and never will be a requirement to work on my campaign in order to be a member of the Clerk of Court staff. Unfortunately, the memo implied seemed to indicate otherwise. Please be advised that only those persons volunteering to campaign for me after hours will be included in any campaign future meeting. I am so sorry for any distress I have caused you. Together, we will continue our mission of providing excellent customer service to our families, children, attorneys, and agencies. Thank you for a job well done.”
She expressed some distress on Wednesday that someone had supplied a copy of the original memo to The Mount Airy News.
“I think it is so unfortunate that someone is sending letters anonymously,” O’Dell said. “I have never once asked these girls their affiliation.”
Following is the full text of the March 27 memo as received by The Mount Airy News, without corrections to spelling, punctuation, grammar or syntax.
Welcome to your first political meeting kicking off your Clerk of Court campaign!
1) Our Mission: Get as many voters registered as unaffiliated or republican before April 13, 2018; Give voters access to absentee ballot requests; The last day to request absentee ballot is May 1, 2018. Ask law enforcement, attorneys, family, college students and friends to vote for O’Dell after 5:00 pm. Do not politic on the job! Make a list of neighbors and friends to call after 5:00 pm. Ask them to speak to their church family and friends. Everybody knows someone you don’t.
2) You will be required to stand at the polls on May 8th for half day. Vacation leave will taken.
3) You will be required to attend the Republican Forum at Temple Baptist Church on April 7, 2018 at 8:30 pm. Bring a Odell sign, sit today and show your support.
4) I will be asking you to go out with me on Saturdays or during the week to speak to people you know. You will take vacation leave.
5) I will not be in the office very often in the next 35 days. I am hitting the campaign trail hard. Therefore, go to your Assistants for guidance if you have questions. In the next 45 days, provide the caller and customer with excellent customer service! Get it right. We are the record keeper.
6) If asked questions about our opponent, just reply with the following: Our office is doing an excellent job of customer service. We have leadership that has taken us to new heights in the Judicial System. Teresa is the right choice. Don’t say anything negative about Mr. Brendle. We are going to be positive about the good things we have done for the citizens of this county.
This is your general election now! This job allows you to care for your family and give them the things they need. I’ve been good to all of you in some way. Now, I asking you to get excited, to get on board and make this happen for me. This is our first campaign together as Democrats and Republicans. Communicate with me daily, help me raise some money and follow up with voters. Some of our big contributors are as follows:
Jody Mitchell, Greg Smith, Dawn and James Hall, Mike Seivers, Chris DiRusso, Teresa Lewis, Lisa and Harvey Handy.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.