The Public Eye

Sacramento County elections chief tied to group chosen to review her office

Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine
Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine Bee file, 2012

When city clerks from Sacramento, Galt and Rancho Cordova complained that Sacramento County mishandled their elections last year, county officials agreed to pay for an independent review of their elections office.

But the county now faces questions about whether the review can be truly independent after hiring a national association with ties to the official who runs that office, Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine.

The county recently awarded a $115,000 contract to the Election Center, a suburban Houston nonprofit, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Sacramento County elections office. That review comes after the office omitted a statement from a Sacramento City Council candidate and misplaced an argument in favor of a Rancho Cordova tax measure in the opponent’s section, among other issues.

The Election Center serves as a national association for election officials and has done reviews of election offices across the country, including a 2007 examination of Sacramento County’s.

The examination of LaVine’s office will be led by Ernest Hawkins, LaVine’s predecessor in the Sacramento County elections office. Toward the end of his tenure in 2003, Hawkins promoted LaVine to assistant registrar and later recommended that the county name her as his replacement. LaVine has run the office since he left.

Hawkins has served as a consultant to the center since leaving the county; he is the project manager of a four-member team that will review Sacramento County’s elections office. LaVine has served on the organization’s professional education board for years. She also has received travel expenses from a nonprofit associated with the Election Center.

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said the Election Center should not conduct the review.

“Talk about undermining its credibility,” said Levinson, an expert in elections law and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “You don’t want these questions of impartiality. ... It’s not the cleanest of arrangements.”

Paul Lake, chief deputy county executive and LaVine’s boss, said he is comfortable with the Election Center conducting the review. Last month, Lake said he called for the review because of the complaints from city clerks and the importance of next year’s presidential election.

Lake said he was aware of the potential conflicts of interest, so he called the Election Center’s executive director to ask him about them. The executive director, Timothy Mattice, who will participate in the review, assured him the review will be fair, Lake said.

Mattice did not respond to a request for comment.

Lake said he wanted the assurance in part because the Election Center proposal narrowly beat one by another firm and he had to make the final decision. The county put together a scoring panel that included an elections official from another county, an analyst in the county executive’s office, Assistant Registrar of Voters Alice Jarboe and Lake.

The county received seven proposals, including ones from other firms specializing in elections. The Election Center received the highest score, 76 points, compared to 73.25 for CGR Management Consultants, which placed second. Jarboe gave exceptionally high scores for the Election Center – 86 points, compared to an average of 71 from the three other panelists – pushing the Election Center ahead of the competition.

Excluding Jarboe’s scores, CGR received the highest total, 75 points to 71 for the Election Center. Jarboe did not return a call seeking comment. Lake said he stands by the selection process, even though he gave a higher score to CGR than the Election Center. He said CGR specializes in analytical data, which he found appealing, but the Election Center has far more experience with elections offices.

Hawkins said he can review the county impartially. He confirmed that he promoted LaVine when he ran the office and recommended that former County Executive Terry Schutten promote her when he left.

He said he would not consider staining the reputation of the Election Center and its history of fair reviews. He also said the review will be conducted by three other people with no history with the county.

Hawkins and another consultant on this year’s review, John Mott-Smith, who previously headed the elections division in the Secretary of State’s office, conducted a review of the county elections office in 2007. The review found problems in the office, including once running out of ballots during an election, but it also concluded that it “is an example of what an elections department should look like. They have a national reputation for excellence and the review proved the reputation is well deserved.”

The Election Center has turned to LaVine for help on national issues. In addition to serving on one of the center’s boards, LaVine participated in a federally funded program that examined voting access for the disabled. The program, which was run in part by the Election Center, paid for more than $3,000 in travel expenses for LaVine, according to reports she filed with the county.

LaVine said her work for the organization is not going to convince the review team to pull punches. The center “is respected nationally for their extensive knowledge of election processes, rules and regulations. As such, they are well qualified to provide objective, educated reviews of election department operations,” she said in an email.

LaVine’s work for the center will not influence his organization’s review of her office, Hawkins said.

“They know they will get an honest and objective report, because we tell them don’t pick us unless that’s what you want,” he said.