Restructuring and reports of a rant: Changes at the Utah County Elections Office
Sep 15, 2023, 12:28 PM | Updated: 7:07 pm
Editorial note: This article has been updated to include responses from both the Utah County Human Resources Department, and Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner.
PROVO — The Utah County Clerk’s Office, headed by newly elected County Clerk Aaron Davidson, has lost its three top elections administrators since May. The changes came in the months before a rare, pushed-back municipal primary election and as the county and the nation stare down the barrel of 2024 state and presidential races.
UPDATE: Since this story first published, statements from UT Co. HR Dept. and Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner each refute claims made by Davidson.
Namely, that HR didn’t reach to Cox, and that the county commissioners approved the new job requirements.https://t.co/7Xq91m1uKi
— Lindsay Aerts (@LindsayOnAir) September 15, 2023
Two former and one current employee of the Utah County Clerk’s Office have told KSL NewsRadio that the shake-up has them worried about the future of the office.
The administrators that left were the elections director, assistant elections director and elections coordinator, according to human resources records obtained by KSL NewsRadio through public records requests.
According to the former employees, the three administrators who left had a combined 39 years of election administration experience. A ballot center technician also left as recently as Sept. 8, 2023.
These reports also substantiate an office misconduct violation against Davidson’s then-confidential assistant, Kaylee Cox. Cox has since assumed a new role as Assistant Elections Director. The report states this happened in mid-May, the day after the long-time elections director left.
The records allege Cox threatened and shouted at two staffers the day after an off-site lunch. At the lunch, the two employees both stated in their report that Cox asked them if they noticed anything that would indicate a coverup during Utah’s 2022 general election, and, about their “loyalty to past administrators.”
Cox declined a recorded interview with KSL NewsRadio. But in on-the-record text messages, she said she was invited to lunch with the staffers.
“We talked about a lot of things both personally and professionally.” Cox wrote to KSL NewsRadio.
Davidson alleges that the Utah County Human Resources Department did not talk to Cox to get her side of the story, despite the report stating that the claim of misconduct was substantiated.
After publication, the Utah County Human Resources Department responded to that allegation by Davidson. During a meeting where the allegations against Cox were discussed, the human resources department said they stated their intent to get statements directly from Cox.
“Our practice is to get statements from all parties and during that meeting, we discussed our intent to get a statement directly from (Cox),” the Utah County Human Resources Department said.
However, the human resources department said that because Davidson is an elected official, the County Clerk has ultimate authority over his department and specifically any political appointees. But, county conduct standards are used as a guide and they make recommendations on what actions could be taken.
Ultimately, the HR department says the elected official makes the final decision on any personnel actions and all departmental operations.
Human resources reported that in this case, corrective action was recommended.
Both Davidson and Cox called the incident a misunderstanding.
Report alleges Cox asked employees if they saw anything that would indicate a cover-up at Utah County Elections
The staffers report the same story. In their respective reports, they state that they and Cox went to lunch off-site.
“I was asked a lot of questions about my job,” wrote one of them in the report. “I was then asked by Kaylee [Cox] if I had any loyalties to a previous administrator.”
“Kaylee asked if I had ever seen anything or anyone suspicious or out of place during the 2022 General Election near or in the ballot center that would indicate a cover-up of some kind,” that employee also wrote in the report.
The second employee detailed the same conversation.
“Kaylee mentioned some theories she had and it seemed like she was wanting us to validate her theories,” the other employee stated in the report.
The morning after this lunch, a supervisor, detailed that he had spoken with both of his employees and said to them, “I don’t need to know the nature of your discussion or what you shared [in your lunch with Cox], all I need to know is do you have any information or concern about impropriety in our election from last year?”
The supervisor reports both employees told him they did not.
First thing the next morning, after learning that the staffers had discussed the lunch with their supervisor, the supervisor reports that Cox came into their office.
“Yesterday I heard from county employees that the election last year was rigged,” the supervisor recalled Cox saying in the report.
“She then went on to name several former county employees and former clerks as being involved in the conspiracy,” the report further alleges.
One of the employees reported feeling “mad,” and the other one reported feeling “blindsided,” that, according to the employee statements in the report, they believe Cox misrepresented their position on the previous election to their supervisor.
The supervisor stated in their report that they went to Davidson to tell him that Cox was spreading “false allegations of serious crimes about a variety of county employees, including current county elected officials.” The report states the employee wanted Davidson to remind Cox, his assistant at the time, to be more professional.
Later that afternoon, the report states that the two employees were leaving their offices when Cox called them in. She was upset the two had talked to their supervisor and that the supervisor had told Davidson, according to the report.
It was at that point, the report states, that the two employees said Cox shouted and threatened them.
“Kaylee yelled, ‘Get back in here’, Kaylee was asking why I was in [the supervisor’s] office,” the employee wrote.
“Kaylee then threatened me [and the other employee],” one employee writes. “She stated very angrily, something to the effect of ‘if I get burned’ and then pointed to the [other employee] and me,” the report states.
“[It was] as if she were saying that she would take us down,” echoed the other employee in their report. “I felt very threatened and very uncomfortable.”
“Many things were said in a short time by Kaylee,” the employee recalled in their report.
The report further indicated that due to the “high level of stress” caused by this meeting and the subsequent interactions with Cox, the employees left the office for the day and wanted time off. The supervisor reports the two were in tears.
The report from the supervisor states that, at that point, they met with Davidson.
“Our discussion in the ballot center was positive, Aaron was sincere in his concern for his staff and shocked at the behavior of Kaylee,” they wrote in their report.
The supervisor reports that Aaron then called both employees and reassured them of their job security.
Cox claims it was a misunderstanding
Cox was asked via text what she said to employees that caused them to go to human resources.
“The only thing I can confirm is that a misunderstanding took place and was escalated … by a former employee,” Cox wrote in a text message to KSL NewsRadio.
“When he left we were able to openly speak and got each other’s perspectives and squashed the issue entirely,” the text message to KSL NewsRadio continued.
Justin Larsen was the former assistant elections director who left in July and agreed to speak on the record. Separate from the human resources report he filed, Larsen described the incident to KSL NewsRadio as Cox “going off the rails.”
He said that left his employees feeling threatened and in tears.
Larsen believes he was passed over for the elections director job because of the incident with Cox. Davidson said that was not true.
“I felt that Kaylee was more qualified for what I needed,” Davidson said.
Davidson has restructured the Utah County elections office
The incident happened in mid-May and since then, Cox assumed the role of assistant elections director, a promotion from her old job as his assistant. Davidson announced her hire in a restructuring of the Utah County Election’s Office late last month.
Davidson has not replaced the elections director position, assuming the role himself.
“I want to be the elections director,” Davidson said. “I’m the county clerk and that’s really one of my major responsibilities.”
The role requires a massive amount of compliance with state and federal election law. Davidson said he has the right staff in place to help him.
“So there’s some arguments over whether I should hire [a] professional to run the elections … and if you look at all the other counties, other than the really large counties, the county clerk really does run the elections. And I just want to get my feet wet.”
Along with promoting Cox, Davidson also hired a chief deputy, Brian Voeks.
Voeks, who is now Davidson’s right-hand man, was a senior policy advisor to former County Commissioner Bill Lee.
Voeks’ position is appointed, which gives Davidson the right to hire whomever he sees fit.
“The chief deputy helps me in my entire capacity, so I needed somebody that knew the county, knew the law, and knew the structure,” Davidson said. Voeks’ has spent eight years in Utah County government, has been the assessor’s chief deputy, and also temporarily managed the Assessor’s office, according to Davidson.
Cox, meanwhile, took over a merited position, meaning one that requires experience. She has half a year of election administration experience, public employment records showed.
Davidson was asked why he hired Cox, even though employment records show Larsen and the former elections coordinator had more election administration experience.
“[Elections experience] was a suggested requirement, that wasn’t a required requirement,” Davidson said of her new job.
Records show the job qualifications were changed
A posting in late 2022 obtained by KSL NewsRadio listed the assistant election director’s job qualifications as, “a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university” (in election-related fields), four years of “progressively responsible elections management experience, including at least one year in a supervisory capacity,” and that “education may not be substituted for the required supervisory experience.”
The posting last updated on August 1, 2023, however, lists those requirements as “preferred,” instead of “required,” qualifications. Cox was announced as the new assistant elections director in late August.
Davidson said he did not loosen the job’s qualifications to hire Cox.
“I can’t remember, and I don’t believe so but maybe I did and maybe I didn’t, I don’t know,” he said.
“HR put out the requirements and we made some changes and I can’t remember exactly where, and the commissioners agreed with them and we used that job requirement and we put it out for applications and she applied and she got the job,” he said.
After publication, one of the three Utah County Commissioners sent this statement to KSL NewsRadio.
“As elected clerk, any change to the job description would unilaterally be made by Aaron,” said Amelia Powers Gardener.
Following Cox’s hiring, Davidson said that Cox’s “diverse educational background and work experience make her a natural fit for this new position.”
Davidson pointed to Cox’s experience in Utah’s 4th District Court, her paralegal experience, and her bachelor’s degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies/Homeland Security and Public Administration.
With her promotion, Cox also became the supervisor over the two staffers who filed the reports about the incident.
“Now that it’s all over, they work very well together with Kaylee being their boss on a daily basis, and have no issues with one another. It’s really a moot issue for all involved,” Davidson said.
The office culture at Utah County Elections since the incident
Davidson was pressed on specifics about the incident with Cox but would not discuss them, saying, “It’s water under the bridge.”
“I’ve forgotten it,” Davidson said when asked to recall what happened that day. “I don’t care to go back there because it’s been completely resolved in my mind.”
The report said that Davidson met with everyone involved and that HR explained the situation to him.
“Kaylee’s reported conduct and allegations about election improprieties prompted meetings between HR and the county clerk to advise and inform him of what had happened,” the report stated.
Davidson said he couldn’t comment on what Cox said to the employees at lunch or beyond because he didn’t witness it.
“I didn’t talk about the allegations [in meetings after the incident,] I talked about their reactions to it,” he said.
The report further outlined that Davidson, “wanted to confirm the reported conduct and behavior before acting.” Cox was his assistant at the time. “Thus, he conducted meetings with the involved parties,” the report states.
The report states that Davidson has addressed the issues and that he, “has since directed his staff, including Kaylee, to leave the previous administration and elections issues in the past and focus on upcoming elections, and maintain a professional work environment,” it said in the report.
One of the staffers reports asking for the next day off because, “I would be worried of being confronted again and I did not want that,” the report states. Both employees reported a text from Cox later that night, “apologizing for putting us in this situation.”
Davidson believes the work environment has since improved and the report alludes to that, despite “some concerns by employees about the functioning of the office.”