Less than three months before a presidential primary, Sacramento County supervisors will examine findings Wednesday that election workers suffer from poor morale, bad communication and shoddy work practices under Registrar Jill LaVine and Assistant Registrar Alice Jarboe.
The Election Center of suburban Houston found “a general consensus that there is a need for improved leadership,” in a report that will be discussed by the Board of Supervisors.
Among other things, the report recommends the county hire a facilitator to help LaVine better manage the elections office, but stops short of recommending her removal. LaVine has been registrar since 2004, when she was appointed by the county executive and approved by the Board.
LaVine said she plans to continue in the office, and notes that the report said she and Jarboe “appear to be highly competent in terms of election administration and are very well regarded by their peers. Program managers and supervisors generally feel positive about both ...”
The election office’s mistakes include publishing incorrect or incomplete information in sample ballot booklets and finding uncounted absentee ballots months after an election.
LaVine’s boss, Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Lake, said he believes LaVine can make the changes needed to improve the office.
The Election Center interviewed 33 current office employees, two former ones, city clerks and other people in its review. The elections office is reeling from errors during the 2014 campaign season and suffers from “significant communication, teamwork and morale issues,” according to the review.
Lake ordered the report late last year following complaints by current and former city clerks about the county’s handling of city elections in recent years. The office’s mistakes have included publishing incorrect or incomplete information in sample ballot booklets and finding uncounted absentee ballots in a warehouse months after an election.
Lake also cited the importance of the upcoming presidential election as a reason for the review, saying he wanted the report by the end of the year. The county received the report this month, and will discuss it about a month before receiving mail-in ballots for elections for a replacement for longtime Sen. Barbara Boxer, a new Sacramento mayor, four council members and two county supervisors.
When the Election Center bid for the contract to complete the report, it said it would not be able to meet the county’s proposed timeline, because its project manager, former Sacramento County Registrar Ernie Hawkins, would not be able to start right away. The center said it would turn in the report in January. It’s not clear what delayed the report almost two more months.
Since the report’s release, Lake has repeatedly declined to discuss it in any detail, except to say he believes LaVine will carry out the recommendations and the county will do everything possible to ensure a smooth primary election. Lake also instructed the Election Center not to comment about the report, saying he wants the discussion confined to Wednesday’s board meeting.
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy said he’s eager to hear from LaVine. “There are serious questions about leadership that need to be asked,” he said. “There is an unhealthy environment over there.”
Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said she’s inclined to think the office’s problems can be handled though new procedures instead of new leadership. But she said the office’s managers have made questionable decisions and she wants to ask about them on Wednesday.
Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino last year called LaVine “not the most competent” registrar in the state. Her comments followed elections in which LaVine’s office failed to include a statement from a City Council candidate in a sample ballot, and LaVine and Concolino clashed over how to count signatures in an initiative aimed at forcing a vote on public funding of the downtown arena.
Last week, Concolino said she “has some trepidation” about continuing to work with LaVine, “but so far Jill and her team have worked really hard to improve.” The city and the county late last year reached a new agreement about how the county would manage elections for the city.
In an addendum to the Election Center report, obtained though a California Public Records Act request, county election workers explain in detail what the report called “a significant undertow of discontent and dissatisfaction that requires addressing.”
“For such a small office, it is sad how divided we are – primarily due to the fact that these three managers refuse to get along and work together for the good of the ENTIRE team,” one employee wrote in a questionnaire provided by the Election Center. “These are the reasons morale is so low and almost everyone is looking for a way out.”
Another employee wrote that none of the office’s managers belonged in their jobs, saying they are “extremely insecure personalities who use fear and intimidation to manage their staff. Their employees do not feel their support or leadership. They are unapproachable, manipulative, do not trust their staff, and do not share information as a means of control. On several occasions I have witnessed employees from both of their sections lose control of their emotions and have to walk away in tears.”
Asked about personnel problems, LaVine and Jarboe more than once commented to the effect, “I’ve tried everything. I just don’t know how to fix it,” according to the report.
The Election Center found that some of the office’s problems existed when the center reviewed the office in 2008. In particular, the county failed to make recommended changes to its process for proofreading sample ballots and other election materials. The most repeated mistake by the office in recent years has been the publication of wrong or incomplete sample ballot material.
Proofreading is primarily handled by temporary employees, according to the report, which adds that county “staff also volunteered that current proofing procedures are a weak spot and a potential source of errors for the department.”