Local Elections

Report says Sacramento County elections office has poor morale, teamwork

Stacks of provisional ballots wait to be counted for the high-stakes race between Rep. Ami Bera and Doug Ose with with workers verifying provisional ballots and election observers from both campaigns on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, at the Sacramento County elections office in Sacramento, Calif.
Stacks of provisional ballots wait to be counted for the high-stakes race between Rep. Ami Bera and Doug Ose with with workers verifying provisional ballots and election observers from both campaigns on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, at the Sacramento County elections office in Sacramento, Calif. Aseng@sacbee.com

Sacramento County’s elections office, reeling from errors during the 2014 campaign season, suffers from “significant communication, teamwork and morale issues,” according to a new independent review.

The county’s executive office last year hired a suburban Houston nonprofit, the Election Center, to examine the office’s operations following complaints from current and former city clerks in Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Galt. The county conducts elections for those and other cities.

Election snafus in 2014 and 2012, including misplaced absentee ballots and errors in voter guides, are the result of poor communication and other issues in the office, the center says in its 74-page report obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Paul Lake, chief deputy county executive, requested the report. He said he is still reviewing its findings.

“They’ve identified some issues that need to be addressed, and I’m confident Jill (LaVine, registrar of voters) and her staff will do so,” he said.

LaVine, who has been Sacramento County registrar since 2003, did not return a call seeking comment.

The report will be discussed at the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 23. Recommendations include additional training, a review of employee requirements and compensation, and hiring a third party to make sure the recommendations are followed, the consultants said, noting that a 2008 review of the office failed to bring promised reform.

Election Center Executive Director Timothy Mattice declined to discuss the report, saying the county wanted to handle all communications about it.

A team of consultants, including a former Sacramento County registrar of voters, interviewed elections office employees, city clerks and others as part of its review.

“Confidence that elections are conducted fairly and accurately is a critical component of the public’s participation in, and trust of, the democratic process,” according to the report.

The report cited a problem with elections staff morale, saying in some cases it was the result of employees fearing punishment. More often than not, the report said, employees are satisfied with their jobs, but “there is a significant undertow of discontent and dissatisfaction that requires addressing.”

The report said some staff viewed Assistant Registrar Alice Jarboe as “distant, prone to micro-management, and, at times, punitive.”

Jarboe did not return a message seeking a response.

Meetings, when they occur, “were characterized as unproductive, often involving finger pointing and gossip in place of useful discussion. One person characterized the meetings as ‘no praise, just pointing out mistakes.’ 

Brad Buyse, who resigned from the county last year after serving as campaign services manager, agreed with the consultants’ findings.

“They’re not dealing with the problems,” he said of his former office. “The real problem is the lack of leadership.”

The office had problems in the 2012 election when 407 absentee ballots were found three months after the election on a shelf in a warehouse. They had not been counted.

The 2014 elections brought far more problems, with sample ballot booklets omitting a statement from a Sacramento City Council candidate and endorsements from the county Democratic Party. An argument for a Rancho Cordova tax measure was put in the wrong place.

These and other issues led city clerks in those places to complain. The county needs to improve its relationship with those clerks, the report concludes, saying “efforts should be made to increase contact with and confidence between stakeholders and staff; specifically, city clerks.”

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