(3/19/08) Editorial – City Clerk No Stranger to Controversy – Ballot Error Just the Latest in String of Issues Involving City Clerk

The error on the sample ballot under City Clerk Nancy Shollenberger’s stewardship is just the latest in a series of issues that have occurred through the years, ranging from outdated handbooks being given to candidates, concerns over judgment regarding partiality, to an eight-year period in which no ordinances were published, and thus did not officially become law.

Ordinances Not Published for Eight Years

In 2001, it was discovered that none of the ordinances passed by the City since 1993 had been published, one of the steps that is required to make them law.  More than 80 laws had not officially become law, because they had not been published, leaving the City exposed to significant liability.  Had someone sued the City over its failure to enact a law, there could have been severe monetary penalties awarded.  The City Council had to re-pass the ordinances so that they could be published.  Government Code 40806 states that it is the City Clerk’s responsibility to: Keep a book marked “ordinances” and record in it all city ordinances with his certificate annexed to each, stating: (a) It is a true and correct copy of a city ordinance; (b) The ordinance number;  (c) It has been published or posted pursuant to law.   Government Code 36933 concerning City Clerk responsibility states -  Publishes ordinances.

Residents Concerned About “Impartial” Election Officer Taking Positions on Candidates/Measures

City Clerk and Election Officer Shollenberger has worked from her home, without keeping any office hours at City Hall, for years.  Effective Feb. 1st, when the new resolution detailing the description of her duties went into effect, she began working from City Hall for 1 hour each week.  But much City business is still conducted at her home, and residents travel to her home to pick up documents.  Through the years, Shollenberger has chosen to put up lawn signs  endorsing candidates and/or ballot measures, to the consternation of many residents who feel that as Election Officer, she should present an appearance of impartiality.  At a recent Candidate forum sponsored by the Rotary Club, Shollenberger was asked about whether it was appropriate to have lawn signs endorsing candidates in her yard, which is, effectively, the office of the City Clerk.  Ms. Shollenberger acknowledged that this is an issue that has been coming up for years, and that she has freedom of speech, and if City Council Members can put up lawn signs, why shouldn’t she?  She added that she had consulted an attorney and he had informed her that it was perfectly legal to do it.  Many of her critics feel that whether she has a legal right to put up the signs or not, her role as Election Officer makes it inappropriate to do so.  Residents look to their Council Members to take a stand, to have opinions, to make endorsements, to, in some cases, lead us by helping us in our own decision making process.  But we look to our City Clerk, our Election Officer, to ensure a fair election, free of bias.  And if I’m a voter driving up to Ms. Shollenberger’s house to pick up a document, and I see lawn signs endorsing candidates, I’m going to have to wonder about that.  If I’m a candidate, and I see that the Election Officer is endorsing my opponent, this too, would cause me to have to wonder.  This wouldn’t be such a big issue for me if the City Clerk business was all done at City Hall, and it was merely her private residence that had signs up.  I still think it would be wrong to do that, but it wouldn’t be as big an issue.  But she does much of her City Clerk work from her home.  People go to her home on official city business.  In essence, her
home is the office of the City Clerk, an extension of City Hall.  And as such, I think it should be free of even the appearance of potential bias for or against candidates.  I wouldn’t want to see lawn signs out in front of City Hall.  I also take issue with the fact that she admits that members of her constituency have had a problem with this for years, but she ignores them and just does what she wants.

Council Refusal to Increase Compensation Leads to Shollenberger “Giving Up Duties”
The subject of additional compensation for taking minutes has also been controversial in town, on three separate occasions over the last twelve years.  Government Code 40801 states that the City Clerk shall – Keep an accurate record of the proceeding of the legislative body in books bearing appropriate titles and devoted exclusively to such
purposes, respectively.  The books shall have a comprehensive general index.  Government Code 36814 regarding a City Clerk’s duties states that the City Clerk – Keeps a correct record of the Council’s proceedings.  In November of 1996, City Attorney Charlie Martin recommended to the Council that they set the City Clerk’s pay to be a stipend of $250/mo, plus a fixed fee of $650/mo for secretarial services.  Council Member Maryann MacGillavray was opposed to the idea, and moved that the pay be set at $250, without the additional pay for secretarial services, but the motion died for lack of a second.  After much discussion, the Council voted 4 to 1 to continue the City Clerk’s payment as proposed by Attorney Martin. 

In 2003, Shollenberger billed the City $650 for August, when there had been no City Council meetings, and therefore no minutes, and then City Manager Tammy Gates refused to pay Shollenberger.  Shollenberger asked to have the matter agendized.  At the October 13, 2003 City Council meeting, Gates described the current duties of the City Clerk: for the $250 stipend, the City Clerk was to sign resolutions and ordinances, sign agreements, act as Notary, administer Oath of Office, and handle Litigation Requests.  For an additional $650/mo, she took minutes of the City Council meetings, ensured that Fair Political Practice Committee forms were complete and forwarded to the FPPC, published ordinances in the newspaper and sent copies to the publisher of the code, and did general filing of resolutions, ordinances and minutes.  An additional $5,500 was allocated for conducting the election.  Shollenberger was requesting additional compensation, increasing the $650 minutes fee by more than half to $1000, and raising the fee for conducting the election by more than one third, to $7500.  Shollenberger said that if the Council does not agree to the revised fee structure, she would be willing to give up the duties described for the election and the additional $650/mo. Shollenberger added that she now felt that the issue of her compensation needed to be addressed.  “This has been a growing problem for me, and I can no longer tender to the City competent services for a fee that is not financially worthy of my doing.”  Ten members of the community stepped to the microphone to show their support for Shollenberger.  Then Mayor Bart Doyle then closed the public portion of the proceedings.

Council Members Doug Hayes and Tonya Torres noted that as far as they were concerned, Nancy had refused to do the work she was elected to do unless she got a raise, with Hayes adding that if Shollenberger was willing to continue at the same rate, he would like her to continue. Torres noted that the City was in the middle of a serious budget problem and they were trying to make this work for everybody, but the Council had been presented with an ultimatum.  Council Member Rob Stockly stated that before the next election, the duties and compensation of the City Clerk needed to be clarified.  Council Member George Maurer showed strong support for the City Clerk.  “Nancy put her foot down and she was right to do it.”  Mayor Doyle stated that the problem needed to be resolved, and that if money is more important than public service, maybe it is time to step down.

Doyle moved that the pay remain as it was, but the motion died.  Council Member Hayes moved that the election amount be increased to $7500 for the next election.  That motion died, too.  Ultimately, the meeting ended with the status quo, with a call for a resolution at the next meeting or the first meeting of November.  At the October
27th meeting, it was decided to re-define the City Clerk’s allocation of duties, following the April 2004 election.  The City Clerk would have specific responsibilities associated with the stipend pay, and oversight of the remaining duties, with clerical functions delegated to a staff member.  That staff member was paid $500/mo.

When staff member Debbie Humphrey recently left to take a new job, there was a void at the minutes taking position.  City Clerk Shollenberger was contacted to obtain information regarding duties and compensation she would be requesting for said duties.  Shollenberger said that she would continue to do the $250/mo. duties for that stipend, and would be willing to keep the election rate, now at $6500, the same.  However, in a letter dated Dec. 14, 2007, she requested an increase in pay for the clerical duties to $1000/mo.  On Jan. 2, 2008, correspondence was received from the City Clerk stating that she would leave the matter of her compensation to the Council’s discretion.

Ultimately, the decision was made to continue with the pay scale of $250/mo stipend, $650 for clerical duties such as minutes and FPPC forms, and $6500 for elections.

Effective Feb. 1, Shollenberger again became responsible for these duties, at the same rate she had rejected four years earlier.  As a condition of the new resolution, she is required to keep regular “office hours” at City Hall, particularly during election season.

Candidate Statement Tells Only Part of the Story

Although Shollenberger decided to stop taking minutes when the Council decided not to increase her compensation, her campaign statement reflects an abbreviated version of events.  The statement says that “A select few City Council Members decided to change the Minute Taking process.”  It does not reflect the fact that the decision to change the process was made after her decision to give up the minute taking responsibilities because the Council would not agree to her request for increased compensation.

Candidates Given Outdated Candidate Handbook

Candidates in this year’s election were given a 1995 Candidate handbook by the City Clerk.  The problem with that is that at least one ordinance has changed since 1995,  in 2003.  This means that candidates in the last 3 elections have received handbooks which inaccurately reflect the current Sierra Madre election ordinances. 

Lack of Attention to Detail Nearly Misinforms Voters About Vote By Mail System

I recently decided to do an article on absentee ballots, because this year’s election falls during spring break for Sierra Madre schools.  I informed our City Clerk of this, and asked her about the process so that I could provide the information in my newspaper article.  She sent me two sentences.  And one of those had an error in it.  Her response was “Sample Ballots will be out between March 10-13 and the request for vote-by-mail ballots is on the back.  You can request from March 13-April 1st.” 

No mention of Permanent Vote By Mail ballots or how to initiate that process.  No mention of emergency absentee ballots, which can be gotten between April 1st and election day.  And her statement that you can request from March 13 was off by 3 days, as you can actually request beginning March 10th, per the Election calendar posted on the website of Martin and Chapman.  Martin and Chapman is the large Orange County consulting firm Shollenberger uses and the City pays to conduct the election, above and beyond the $6500 Shollenberger receives for conducting the election.

I then asked for more information, about a couple dozen questions.  She responded to many of them, but not all.  There were about half a dozen questions that didn’t get answered.  But her failure to answer questions is not as big a deal as the whopper of an error that was included in her e-mail to me.  I quote: “As long as a Vote By Mail ballot is postmarked by April 1 we will count it or the resident can take it to the polling place.”  This seemed a little strange to me, and since I was going to be attempting to inform readers throughout the San Gabriel Valley, I wanted to double check the info, so I called her at home.  She was very gracious, accepting my call a little before 9 in the evening, which she really didn’t have to do.  I asked her, “…if a voter sends you their ballot and it’s postmarked April 2nd, and you receive it April 5th, 3 days before the election, you’re still going to discard it because it’s postmarked after April 1st?”  She said that was the case, that they had to be postmarked by April 1st or brought to the polling place.  As the conversation continued, though, she realized her error, and acknowledged that she had made an error, that she must have been thinking about the application for an absentee ballot, which have to be postmarked by the first, that she could in fact accept absentee ballots right up until election day.  Had I not questioned the date, I would have misled readers throughout the San Gabriel Valley, based on Ms. Shollenberger’s misinformation.

Thank goodness this year we have an alternative candidate to vote for.  As a friend of mine, a true old time Sierra Madrean that has lived here for decades, said to me recently, “Karma Bell looks very good.”

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