Why S.F. elections boss might lose his job after two decades and four elections this year
Category: News & PoliticsVia: s • 6 days ago • 6 comments
With San Francisco’s fourth election of the year still to be certified, the man who oversaw it all and scores of other vote counts over the past 20 years could lose his job next year.
The Elections Commission, which oversees the city department, voted 4-2 last week to not renew Director John Arntz’s five-year term at this time, but instead hire a search firm to consider him, if he wanted to apply, among a pool of candidates before making a final decision about whether to reappoint him by April. This will be the first time since 2002 that the Elections Commission will conduct a search for other candidates.
The move drew astonishment and criticism from the mayor and other Arntz supporters.
Commissioners made the decision not because Arntz is doing a bad job, they said, but because they wanted to give a chance for people of all backgrounds to apply.
“Our decision wasn’t about your performance, but after twenty years we wanted to take action on the City’s racial equity plan and give people an opportunity to compete for a leadership position,” commission President Chris Jerdonek wrote in an email Monday to Arntz. “We also wanted to allow enough time for a fair and equitable process and conduct as broad a search as possible.”
Commissioner Cynthia Dai said in order to do more than just pay lip service to Mayor London Breed’s push for racial equity, “you have to actually open up your senior leadership roles... otherwise you get in a situation where you are literally waiting for someone to retire for those positions to open up.”
But Breed, other elected officials, city staff and citizens expressed concern at the commission’s move, quickly jumping to defend Arntz’s record of running fair, free and functional elections without a glitch, especially during an unprecedented pandemic.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, tweeted that the department was a mess before Arntz and questioned why on Earth the commission was trying to“dump” a strong leader. Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the move“bananas.”
Breed said in a statement Monday that Arntz has “served San Francisco with integrity, professionalism and has stayed completely independent.”
“He’s remained impartial and has avoided getting caught up in the web of city politics, which is what we are seeing now as a result of this unnecessary vote,” she said. “Rather than working on key issues to recover and rebuild our city, this is a good example of unfair politicization of a key part of our government that is working well for the voters of this city.”
A dozen division managers under Arntz wrote a letter to commissioners praising his management after past high turnover among directors and supporting his reappointment. Mayank Patel, division manager in charge of poll workers and field support, wrote in an email that staff were “gravely concerned” the commission was “actively seeking to remove” Arntz.
Jerdonek and Dai denied that the search process was an effort to get Arntz out of the job.
The commission considered pursuing a selection process five years ago, but didn’t have time before Arntz’s last term ran out, Jerdonek said. Dai said it was “long overdue” to conduct a fair and competitive search to find the best candidate — which very well could be Arntz, whom they invited to apply.
But Arntz, who said Monday he didn’t have a public statement on whether to put himself in the running for his job, got a different impression.
“When I saw that they started to move forward with a selection process, your first thought is that your term is coming to an end,” he said, adding, “The commission has full authority to appoint who they want to as director.”
Patel, who sits on the department’s racial equity task force, expressed concern about commissioner comments that implied they needed a change because Arntz was a specific race and had served in the role for a long time, and argued that the process should be merit-based.
Peskin said, “The remarks from commissioners are ripe for a discrimination lawsuit.”
Arntz said Jerdonek’s email on Monday, in which the commissioner said he left a voice mail with Arntz on Thursday, was the first he heard of the reason. Arntz said that from the tenor of previous meetings, he would have expected the basis would be that the city hasn’t developed an open-source voting system yet.
Years ago, the city stated its official policy to move toward the new form of voting, where anyone could look at the code that tabulates elections, to save money and increase transparency. But California’s secretary of state hasn’t yet approved any such voting system, and the elections department doesn’t have the expertise or budget to develop or contract its own and try to get it approved, Arntz said.
Multiple open-source voting advocates who gave public comment during last week’s meeting criticized Arntz for not more aggressively pushing open-source voting, with one saying he had a “predisposition to the legacy system.”
Jerdonek said the move to open up the selection process was not related to open-source voting, for which he did not blame the department or Arntz. Dai also denied the move was motivated by recent disagreements between Arntz and the commission about how long to contract with the existing provider, Dominion Voting Systems.
The national company is the only one able to run San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting, Arntz said.
He said he plans to extend the current four-year $8.5 million contract for two more years, at $2 million a year, because he isn’t convinced that an open-source voting system will be approved in time to run a presidential election in 2024.
Dai preferred to extend the contract only one year and keep options open.
Dominion Voting Systems came under fire from supporters of former President Donald Trump and 2020 election deniers as the target of baseless allegations of fraud, but the company also came under scrutiny in a San Francisco Examiner article last year.
The Examiner questioned Arntz’s close relationship with a sales representative from Dominion, which continues to raise rates. Arntz said there was “nothing inappropriate” about the contract, which went through all the legal city processes.
Dominion was the only vendor that responded to the city’s bid. Dai said she couldn’t blame Arntz for the lack of qualified companies and didn’t see anything wrong with keeping in close contact with the contractor, although she was concerned about an industry monopoly.
California’s secretary of state denied approval to a nonprofit to run open-source voting in San Francisco’s November election, arguing that the nonprofit wasn’t prepared for ranked-choice votes. San Francisco is using its own open-source system for the auditing process to check votes.
The city estimates that an executive search will cost $30,000 to $50,000 — but Peskin already told Jerdonek supervisors wouldn’t approve the money. Peskin is authoring a resolution, to be heard at the Dec. 6 board meeting, urging the commission to reappoint Arntz, and already got the backing of eight other supervisors.
The commission has until April to decide whether to renew Arntz’s term.Dai said the search was a “small investment that we can make as an oversight commission to ensure that we have the best and brightest running our local elections.”
In the end, the best person to run elections, she said, may be the man who holds the job now.