(3/15/08, modified 3/16/08) Why Sierra Madre Needs Karma Bell

Karma Bell wants to establish regular office hours for the City Clerk.  And Karma Bell wants to spend those City Clerk hours actually in the place where much City Government business takes place – City Hall.  There’s a novel concept.  A City Clerk, who is accessible to her constituents for multiple hours each week, in City Hall.  Karma Bell has shown herself to be an effective administrator, as president of Sierra Madre Little League, Sierra Madre PTA, and Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce.  Karma Bell has organized and managed the Wistaria Festival, an event that requires management skills far beyond those that a City Election, probably the most formidable task in the City Clerk’s job description, requires.  Karma Bell believes that the office of the City Clerk should give the appearance of impartiality.  She’ll still have her opinions, but she won’t be broadcasting them, recognizing that her position as manager of the City’s election requires her to maintain the appearance of impartiality.  She recognizes that sometimes freedom of speech is best exercised by remaining silent.

And Why Sierra Madre Voters Need to Retire Nancy Shollenberger

There is just so much to say here, I don’t know where to begin.  But I’ll try, recognizing that this is going to get longer as I find answers to some of the things I’m researching.  Get out your reading glasses, grab a cup of coffee or a bottle of water (or wine, whatever your preference), because this is going to be a long one.

I think I’ll start with some of the most recent, and work my way backwards.  Our City Clerk screwed up big time on the April 8th election, and has shown an incredible lack of judgment, transparency and accountability ever since.  Basically, the Argument for Measure P was allowed to be printed in the sample ballot with two glaring errors in it.  Errors that could compromise the integrity of the election.  In the argument, which starts out accurately enough, the Utility Users Tax (Measure U) is twice misidentified as Measure P, and the Police Officer’s Association (POA) initiative, Measure P, is misidentified as Measure UA.  The argument, which is signed by all five City Council members, informs voters that the POA has abandoned the initiative, which they had placed on the ballot after collecting the required signatures.  The statement says that the officers had come to the conclusion that their initiative would have “resulted in cutting services the City provides that the Community has come to enjoy and expect.”  It states that the POA agreed to accept a more modest salary increase than their measure would have provided, and that the City would provide that increase only if it receives the necessary revenue to do so.    Up to this point things are accurate.  However, in its next two sentences, the argument misidentifies the two ballot measures, stating “Accordingly, the Police Officers Association respectfully asks that the Community vote YES to increase the Utility Users Tax (Measure P) and vote no on the POA initiative (Measure UA).”  The Utility  Users Tax is actually Measure U, and the POA initiative is actually Measure P.   The next sentence incorrectly reads “A YES vote to allow an increase to the Utility Users Tax (Measure P) will provide our public safety employees (police, fire, and paramedics the compensation necessary to keep our experienced and loyal public servants working in Sierra Madre.”   It should, of course, identify the Utility Users Tax initiative as Measure U, not P.  Following the argument are the “signatures” of all five City Council members.  If things weren’t confusing enough before, they just became significantly more so.

The POA initiative, Measure P, tied pay raises for the officers to the salaries of police departments in other cities, effectively taking control of SMPD salaries out of the hands of the City Council and putting it in the hands of the City Councils in neighboring cities.

It is the Clerk’s responsibility to proof read and submit to the voters an accurate product.  That was obviously not done in this case.  Failure to do so has caused staff to spend time researching the error, and trying to determine how to deal with it.  Now there will be the time spent on preparation of the corrected ballot, the expense of printing it, and the expense of mailing it citywide.  Further, the City Clerk decided to issue a press release as her way of dealing with the situation.  It appears she did not have the City Manager or the City Attorney provide any input on the method of correction, or on the press release she issued.  The office of the City Clerk is a separate entity, responsible only to the voters.  City Council and City Manager have no authority over her, and she is not required to work with the City administration to fix the problem.  However, one would think that with the potential liability to the City caused by her error, a committed team player, who is cooperating with others who are most definitely adversely effected by her error, might consult with them, or at least make them privy to her response to the situation.  Yet she did not even provide a copy of the press release to the City Manager or the City Attorney before releasing it to the press.  And it might have been in her best interest to have had it reviewed by the City Attorney, as her method of dealing with the error includes offering people who have already sent in their ballots the opportunity to receive a replacement ballot.  I’ve been told by one former Southern California City Clerk that she doesn’t know how Ms. Shollenberger intends to replace already received ballots with a replacement ballot without, for lack of a better word, “tampering” with the ballots.

In addition to all the costs associated with correcting the error, there is also the potential that backers of one of the measures effected could challenge the election based on the error.  Such a challenge, if upheld by the court (how much for the City to defend itself?), could, require an expensive replacement special election.

She has failed repeatedly to respond to questions about how this happened.  I sent her a series of direct questions, many of which were questions that voters were asking when I spoke with them.  Among them:

Who submitted the Argument in Favor of Measure P?
Was it submitted exactly as it appears on the sample ballot?
If not, what is different, and how did those changes occur?
Is it the City Clerk’s responsibility to check (proofread) said arguments for factual errors such as appeared in this argument?
Did you proofread this argument?
Even if not required by law, should the City Clerk check for such errors in order to reduce the possibility of the City expending large amounts of money and time investigating and correcting this type of error?
If the City Clerk sees a factual error such as those found in the argument, is he/she required to request clarification from the submitters, or in any way notify the submitters that their argument contains errors?
Ms. Shollenberger at one point told me that she would respond to the questions “when decisions on next step have been made.” (sic).  The next step was taken, the release of the press release.  I asked her to respond again at that time, and she has not responded.  I asked a third time, this time asking if she intends to respond, and again have received no response.  Apparently Ms. Shollenberger feels no obligation to respond to a voter who has questions regarding an error by her office that is going to cost the City a lot of money.  (Editor’s update: Sunday at 2:25pm, nearly 48 hours after my second request for her to respond to my questions, I received the following from Nancy: Bill,  “I will be answering questions at the Kiwanis luncheon on March 25th.  I have been advised not to answer questions…” )

In fairness, the argument was most likely presented as it was printed in the ballot, with errors intact.  Ms. Shollenberger obviously knows, but won’t tell me, for whatever reason.  I’ve also asked the President of the POA, but have not yet heard back from him, either.  But even if the error was initiated by others, it is Ms. Shollenberger’s responsibility to protect the City by making sure that errors like that don’t get printed.

Okay, so let’s get past this whole sample ballot error stuff.  Item number 2 – A frightening lack of attention to detail that could have had an adverse effect on the voting process.  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..

I then asked for more information, about a couple dozen questions.  She responded to many of them, but her response to one of them concerns me.  When asked about what happens to ballots after an election, she responded “The ballots are kept by the City Clerk’s Office for six months.”  The City Clerk’s office?  Does that mean her house?  Garage?  I’ve been told by more than one source that she stores them at her house.  Seems to me they should be stored within the security of City Hall, but maybe that’s just me.  Oh wait, it’s not, the same ex-City Clerk who told me that replacement ballots were problematic tells me that it’s not okay to store ballots at one’s home.  There were also 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.

Item 3 – Lack of sound judgment regarding managing an election.  At the recent candidates’ forum, Ms. Shollenberger was asked about whether it was appropriate to have lawn signs out endorsing candidates.  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.  This is an unresponsive answer.  The question wasn’t “is it legal”, the question was, “is it appropriate?”  While I don’t question Ms. Shollenberger’s free speech rights, I would like to point out that the answer to Ms. Shollenberger’s question about if City Council members can do it why can’t she is this:  we look to our 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 to ensure a fair election, free of bias.  And if I’m a voter driving up to Ms. Shollenberger’s house to pick up an absentee ballot or some other document, and I see lawn signs endorsing candidates, I’m going to have to wonder about that.  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 most of her work from her home.  People go to her home on official city business.  In essence, her home is the office of the City Clerk.  And as such, I think it should be free of even the appearance of potential bias for or against candidates.  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.

All right, it’s after 1 in the morning, and I’ve just written more than 2,000 words, (and you’ve just read that much), so I’m going to stop and give us both a break.  But I’ll be writing more soon.  Here are a few things I’ll be touching on, some of which may take a little longer to get written because there’s research involved. 

Revisionist history in her sample ballot statement regarding taking of the minutes. 

Absolutely incoherent minutes submitted since she returned (I’ll probably be publishing some samples from the media packet that I am provided). 

Failure to publish ordinances for 7 years straight, exposing the City to extreme liability, and costing it tens of thousands of $$. 

Providing candidate’s with outdated handbooks.

And there’s so much more to add. 

If it weren’t sad, it would almost be funny.  But it’s not funny.  It’s very serious stuff.  This is our town we are talking about here.