Blowing It

How San Francisco elections officials dropped the ball on instant runoff voting

In 1998, he moved to the Bay Area, teaching computer classes and freelancing for an online aviation magazine. He left a job writing product descriptions for a vitamin company to join the Elections Department.

By all accounts, Arntz is a quick study. "He's tireless, dedicated, and has the respect of those who work for him," says former colleague Girard Gleason, who drafted Arntz to help him supervise the printing of ballots for the March 2000 election. "There's no task he hasn't performed over there, including lowly precinct work." Neither, say admirers, is he political. In fact, by his own sheepish admission, San Francisco's top elections official has failed to vote in the last five local elections.

On a rainy primary election night in March 2002, Gleason recalls driving to a polling station in the garage of a Pacific Heights home to pick up Arntz, who was poll sitting, after the volunteer who was supposed to bring him back to City Hall failed to show. "There were two [volunteer] workers with him. The first one bailed out before the polls closed. The second one, whom I think came from a soup kitchen, also threatened to bail. So John reaches in his pocket and hands him $20 to get him to stay. That's the kind of guy he is."

But others express amazement at the degree to which the commission has followed its rookie elections chief on IRV, adding to the perception that the rollout's failure is due to more than mere bungling.

"They defer to him as if he were some veteran elections registrar," says Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "You've got to remember: He's still learning the ropes and is a probationary employee."

Even Arntz's selection, conducted under the Elections Commission's auspices, appears to have fit a familiar San Francisco pattern. Touted as a national search, the process attracted only nine applicants. Of the five who made the final cut, only Arntz and two others passed a written exam.

Not a single veteran elections official was among the applicants for the job, with its advertised salary of up to $144,000 per year. (A commission source says Arntz earns about $140,000 annually.) "If the aim was to attract an experienced registrar, that's not the way San Francisco went about it," says Contra Costa County voter registrar Stephen Weir, who served on a panel of experts that helped devise questions for the exam. Weir and another experienced California registrar noted that San Francisco personnel officials failed to employ an outside headhunting firm to aggressively target talented prospective applicants. "If you want to bring in someone with a high-caliber track record -- and trust me, they are out there -- you don't wait for them to come to you," says Weir. "You go after them." Instead, he says, the city used its regular civil service testing process, as if it were hiring a low-level employee such as a clerk.

As time has ticked away for November, the commission created by voters supposedly to erase political manipulation from city elections has, besides appearing impotent, looked increasingly political in its inaction. Since Prop. A's passage, the Elections Commission has done little to advance IRV beyond passing a couple of tepid resolutions -- one in March 2002 and another in August of this year -- supporting instant runoff voting in principle.

The latter gesture, before a hearing room packed with IRV fans, was especially uninspiring, after a motion by Commissioner Shadoian that called on the panel to support putting the system in place by November failed to muster a majority. Late last year, Tom Schulz, the panel's other IRV champion, tried and failed to get a majority of commissioners to adopt even a simple mission statement that called for them to hold the Elections Department accountable for its performance. He and Shadoian complain that Mendelson and Rosenthal have thwarted their efforts to advance IRV.

"The commission is a dysfunctional family and, sadly, it appears to be that way by design," says Schulz, a retired U.S. General Accounting Office investigator appointed to the commission by the Board of Supervisors. Shadoian, the school board appointee, offers a similar view. "We seem to be a commission that doesn't know what our duties are," he says. But others see it differently.

"The department has been doing nothing but working on [IRV]," insists current commission VP Mendelson, an attorney appointed by DA Terence Hallinan. Although Prop. E gives the commission oversight and policy-setting authority, Mendelson and Rosenthal insist that the commission shouldn't inject itself into the department's day-to-day operations. It's a view that the commission majority has come to share in doing little to press for IRV. "The law does say [implementation should occur by] November 2003, but if the director of the department comes back to us and says he can't do it, then it's not for us to say he can," says Commissioner Brenda Stowers, named to the panel by city Treasurer Susan Leal.

Rosenthal, a lawyer appointed by former Public Defender Kimiko Burton, has become a lightning rod of criticism for IRV backers since her misgivings about the new voting system became publicly known. "I don't know that I can fight [the perception] no matter what I do," she says, referring to accusations her panel has stood in IRV's way. "I just have to be repeating that I'm here to support John Arntz. My feelings about IRV have never been particularly relevant."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.