The Public Eye

City clerks criticize Sacramento County elections office

Registrar of Voters for Sacramento County Jill LaVine at the registrar’s office in Sacramento in March 2012.
Registrar of Voters for Sacramento County Jill LaVine at the registrar’s office in Sacramento in March 2012. Sacramento Bee file

The Sacramento County elections office published sample ballot booklets last year with a number of errors: Omitted were a statement from a Sacramento City Council candidate and a list of endorsed candidates from the Democratic Party. Included was an argument in favor of a Rancho Cordova tax measure – where the opponent’s argument belonged.

The same year, Galt City Council members up for re-election received incorrect information from the office about their ballot order. The incumbents, including one who lost by a razor-thin margin, used the information in campaign materials to tell voters how to select them.

Current and former city clerks in Sacramento, Galt and Rancho Cordova say the elections office has become less reliable in the past 18 months. The problems, they say, coincide with a decision by Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine in January 2014 to reassign her longtime campaign services manager. California cities generally contract with counties to run elections, due to the high cost of voting machines and personnel. City clerks, therefore, must work closely with LaVine and the campaign services manager to try to ensure elections run smoothly.

LaVine, who was appointed by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in 2003, declined requests for an interview. In written responses, she said the number of mistakes last year was relatively small, “but even these few were not up to my standards. It was clearly a rough year.” She said the office has changed its procedures to prevent similar errors in the future, such as sending proofs to a larger group of people before printing.

LaVine said she has discussed some of the problems with city clerks in Rancho Cordova and Sacramento and “resolved them.”

Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino said her concerns about the office have not been resolved. She said her frustrations about LaVine came to a head during last year’s review of signatures on a petition to force a public vote on government subsidies for professional sports stadiums. Concolino said LaVine improperly counted signatures, yet kept making public statements about her results, adding fuel to an already overheated debate.

“She’s not the most competent,” said Concolino, a past president of the City Clerks Association of California.

She said the county needed to review all of the signed petitions, rather than a sample such as LaVine wanted. That’s because there were nine versions of the petition, and Concolino needed to know if any of them had enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, she said.

In her written response, LaVine said she was not opposed to a full count of the petitions and “deferred to the city of Sacramento as I am required to do.” She said her initial public comments on the count reflected her past practice, but she restricted her remarks when asked.

Concolino raised her concerns about LaVine earlier this year with the chief of staff for Phil Serna, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, which has the authority to hire and fire the registrar of voters. In recent months, supervisors have also received letters complaining about LaVine’s management of the office from the Galt city clerk and a longtime employee who resigned from the office this year, records show.

Serna said last week that he is concerned about the possibility of problems in the office but needs more time to investigate the complaints before commenting. Paul Lake, director of the Countywide Services Office and LaVine’s supervisor, also declined to comment, saying he had not seen the complaints.

On Dec. 11, then-Galt City Clerk Elizabeth Aguirre sent a letter about the office to the Board of Supervisors. She said the letter was also sent to LaVine. Aguirre wrote that for most of her 18 years as clerk, she had received regular and accurate information about elections from the county, but that had changed of late.

Every election, Aguirre said, she received from the county a list of the order in which the City Council candidates would appear on the ballot. The order is determined by a random drawing the Secretary of State completes before each election. Aguirre provided that information to council members, who often used it in campaigns, she said.

Last year, she got a list from the county that had the candidates in the wrong order, and some of the candidates didn’t learn about it until after using it in campaign materials, she said.

One of the candidates, then-Councilman Mike Singleton, lost his seat by 51 votes, less than 1 percent of the overall vote, in the at-large election. He said he was upset about the mistake, which “might have” cost him the election.

Neither county supervisors nor LaVine responded to Aguirre’s letter complaining about the mistake, Aguirre said. “I called the registrar’s office and I was told ‘Sorry,’ ” she said.

In her written response, LaVine blamed Aguirre for providing candidates with incorrect information.

“The only confusion of which we are aware is that Galt’s city clerk incorrectly used the county alpha list to provide her council members with the candidate list,” she said. However, later in her response, LaVine conceded that “someone on our staff may have provided her the wrong list in error.”

Rancho Cordova City Clerk Mindy Cuppy said the elections office failed to accept any responsibility for another error – the placement of an argument in favor of Measure H, a sales-tax initiative, where the argument against the measure should have gone in the sample ballot booklet. As a result, two arguments in favor of the measure were placed next to each other and before any of the opponents’ arguments. Measure H passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Cuppy said she takes some responsibility for the mistake by not catching it when she submitted proofs to the county. She said the county did not accept any responsibility, nor did it correct the mistake by reprinting the booklet for Rancho Cordova voters.

LaVine said the error was discovered too late to reprint the booklet without an order from a judge. “We printed the information as it was provided to us by the city of Rancho Cordova,” she said.

By contrast, the county spent an estimated $68,000 to rectify other errors in the booklets. Most of that money paid for postcards mailed to voters countywide to tell them about Democratic Party endorsements that were previously omitted from the sample ballot booklets. The county also printed new sample ballots to send to voters in Sacramento City Council District 8, where incumbent Bonnie Pannell had resigned, creating an open seat. An earlier version failed to include a candidate statement from Toni Colley-Perry, who ended up losing by a sizable margin.

Concolino, Cuppy, Aguirre and other city clerks say such errors happened far less frequently when Brad Buyse served as the county’s campaign services manager. Buyse was reassigned in 2014, then retired this year. “He was fantastic,” Cuppy said. “He always made sure the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted.”

LaVine reassigned Buyse to head precinct services last year, saying she needed to reorganize her office when two managers retired. He retired in January, after almost 30 years in the office, saying he could no longer tolerate LaVine’s management of him and others in an office where he once loved to work.

Another elections employee, Jennifer Little, ended an 11-year career in the office in May and offered a similar explanation as Buyse in her resignation letter. “I personally feel that they intend on making the office a complete disaster before they leave,” she said in a letter to county supervisors, referring to LaVine and another manager in the office.