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Controversy surrounds Smith County Democratic Party’s precinct chair ballot drawing

Tyler police officers called to meeting
Published: Mar. 11, 2022 at 6:59 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 11, 2022 at 8:09 PM CST
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - There is controversy among members of the Smith County Democratic Party over Thursday night’s ballot drawing for precinct chairs. It’s a process that determines who comes first on the ballot and who comes second. Precinct chairs say the democratic process was impeded, while the county chair says election code was followed.

Video livestreamed to Facebook by Mike Nichols, Pct. 14 chair, shows people standing outside of the office where a meeting of the party’s county executive committee was taking place. The meeting included a ballot drawing for precinct chairs using names on slips of paper and a coffee pot.

“What happened (Thursday) night is actually a culmination of surprises for us,” said Mitzi Rusk, Pct. 54 chair. “Until three days ago, we didn’t even know the location of the Smith County Democratic Party Office and you know, we the taxpayers are paying for that office.”

“A lot of elected officials, precinct chairs, etc., were not allowed into the building,” said Hector Garza, Smith County Democratic Party Chairman-elect.

Garza was elected in the recent March 1 primary election and will take office in June. Until then, Michael Tolbert is the county chair and was one of the people on the other side of the locked door. At one point, Tyler police officers were called to the location by both Tolbert and one of the precinct chairs.

Smith County Democratic Party Chair Michael Tolbert can be seen during Thursday night's ballot...
Smith County Democratic Party Chair Michael Tolbert can be seen during Thursday night's ballot drawing.(Facebook/Mike Nichols)

“There’s a group that has their own agenda that decided they were going to storm into the office and create chaos and havoc,” Tolbert said in an interview with KLTV.

Tolbert said at the time people were trying to get inside the room, they were conducting a county executive committee meeting with a virtual option. He said the Texas Open Meetings Act was not violated, while some party members allege it was.

“For the last two years, we’ve had our meetings via Zoom because of the pandemic. And it was a regularly scheduled meeting on Zoom. For that portion of the meeting, we allowed candidates and their representatives to be present for the ballot drawing,” Tolbert said.

Texas Election Code states candidates of a representative can be physically present when the ballot drawing is conducted. Tolbert said those rules were followed. When the ballot drawing started, he said the door was opened. But precinct chairs like Mitzi Rusk said it wasn’t that simple.

“What was violated (Thursday) night is that until Hector Garza made the compromise offer to come to a peaceful solution, we were literally and physically shut out of the office, and Chair Tolbert was going to do it by Zoom only,” she said. “Zoom under the definition of the Secretary of State is not in-person.”

Rusk said Tolbert used members locked out of the room for a quorum during the CEC meeting, despite not being able to take part in portions of the meeting.

Rusk also claims Tolbert failed to post proper notice of the Thursday night meeting and its location ahead of time. Tolbert denied the allegations, saying notice was posted online in a timely manner with the Zoom link. A calendar posting on the party’s website showed notice of the meeting on Friday with a Zoom link, but no physical address was included.

”For the last two years, there have been a group of people determined to advance their own agenda,” Tolbert said. “They do not represent us.”

A group of Smith County Democrats gathered on the downtown Tyler square to raise concerns about...
A group of Smith County Democrats gathered on the downtown Tyler square to raise concerns about Thursday night's ballot drawing.(Blake Holland/KLTV)

“Now it’s time to move forward,” said Garza, who will take over as county chair in June. “It’s time to get legislation together to where we can push issues like health care, WIC, everything that’s going on in Smith County and start presenting agendas to where we can move forward on a positive note.”

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