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Circuit Judge Andrew Bailey issued a final order denying Norfork School Board President Levi Woods’s petition to be placed on the ballot in the Position 2 seat for the Norfork Public Schools’ Board of Education in next month’s election.
Norfork’s Stephanie Free will run for Position 2 unopposed.
Woods filed the petition after Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese notified him last November that he had incorrectly applied to run for office in Position 1 instead of his current position, making him disqualified from the election.
Woods had applied for Position 1 after being told by Norfork School District Superintendent Chip Layne, who testified that a members of Reese’s staff had told him that Woods would be running under Position 1. Confusion over the position switch was further exasperated after members of Reese’s staff told Woods that he was “good to go” with the position he had filed for after looking over his paperwork with him before the filing deadline in November.
Layne testified that Woods had told him that he would confirm the position with the clerk’s office when turning in his paperwork, which was in line with what was written in Woods’ petition.
Both Reese and Baxter County Election Coordinator Lindsay Roberts publicly denied that a conversation with Layne over changing Position 2 to Position 1 had taken place.
In a conversation with Reese over Wednesday’s hearing, Reese said that the individual who allegedly held a conversation with Layne over switching positions was still not brought to light in court but did say that she admitted to her staff’s mistake telling Woods that his paperwork was correctly completed and that her office should have never accepted Woods’s paperwork.
Judge Bailey left a footnote to her admission in his order.
“Mr. Woods and Ms. Reese agree that the Baxter County Clerk’s Office staff should not have accepted his paperwork as it was presented. Even so, Ms. Reese’s decision to ultimately reject Mr. Woods’ certification, based on her personal review of the paperwork, was required by the statute,” wrote Judge Bailey.
The Baxter County Clerk also testified that her staff has been retrained on election filings so that an error like the one that occurred in November would not happen in the future.
When asked for comment over Wednesday’s hearing, Woods told the Observer to request a copy of the court transcript and compare it to what Reese had said.
Judge Bailey ultimately agreed that Woods had been told incorrect information over which position to run for.
“At some point prior to Mr. Woods filing his paperwork for the March 2024 election, Chip Layne, Superintendent of Norfork Public Schools, told Mr. Woods that he had been in contact with the Baxter County Clerk’s office and that the position Mr. Woods would be running for this cycle would be changed to Position 1. This information was incorrect; Position 2 was up for election. At the time he filed his paperwork, Mr. Woods inquired of the Baxter County Clerk’s Office staff, which included the Baxter County Elections Coordinator. He was again incorrectly advised that Position 1 was the position up for election. The Baxter County Clerk’s Office accepted Mr. Woods’s candidate paperwork for the Norfork School Board Position 1 and marked it filed on November 13, 2023, at 11:13 a.m.,” wrote Judge Bailey.
Still, the judge ruled that Wood’s filings were “his own” and denied his petition.
“The court finds that by placing the wrong position number on his candidacy paperwork, Mr. Woods was not compliant with the strict requirements of our election laws. Mr. Woods was ineligible for certification by the Baxter County Clerk for placement on the March 2024 ballot and the court is without authority in the law to declare otherwise. It is unfortunate that Mr. Woods’ reliance upon the representations of the Baxter County Clerk’s Office was determinative of his decision to petition and file for the incorrect position. However, the strict enforcement of election law is not subject to equity’s reach, and a candidate’s filings are his own,” Judge Bailey wrote.
The petition has been dismissed and marked closed.