A perceived misstep by the SF Elections Commission last month, saying they were not planning to renew the contract of 20-year veteran director of the Department of Elections John Arntz in favor of conducting an executive search to seek a diverse array of candidates, has now been reversed.
The move was seen by many in City Hall said as baffling because of both the sensitivity of elections in general and Arntz's track record of well organized, scandal-free elections for two decades. Supervisor Aaron Peskin went so far as to call the move "commission malfeasance." But a plurality of commissioners said they felt it was necessary, in adherence with its long-term racial equity plan, not to by-rote renew Arntz's contract and instead allow him to reapply for his job while it considered other candidates as well.
After weeks of uproar, at its Monday meeting, the Elections Commission reversed itself as the Chronicle reports and voted to consider renewing Arntz's contract, saying it would cancel plans for an executive search. The commission did this, at least in part, because the Board of Supervisors had already vowed not to approve the funding necessary for the executive search.
At the meeting, some commissioners hedged to save face. Per the Chronicle, Commissioner Cynthia Dai said, "To me, this was simply about making sure that the city had a look at the full breadth of talent out there." And Commissioner Renita LiVolsi said, "If we are going to have equity, that means we have to do things differently and not continue to do what we’ve always done." LiVolsi added, in a comment to Arntz, that this was "nothing personal" and "I appreciate your service to the city of San Francisco."
The full motives for the move to potentially oust Arntz aren't clear, however there are three new commissioners as of the last two years appointed to five-year terms, and a seventh seat on the commission to be appointment by the Board of Education remains vacant. The vote on November 22, which took place in closed session following public comment, was 4 to 2 in favor of opening up a nationwide search, with commissioners Nancy Hayden Crowley (a mayoral appointee) and Lucy Bernholz in dissent.
Bernholz made her feelings about the situation known on Monday, as the Chronicle reports, saying, "It is incumbent upon this commission to rectify the damage done by the previous decision as quickly as possible. Not only have we inflicted damage on the department, we’ve made ourselves an unreliable, untrustworthy body, and until we fix that, all of the work we’ve done on other issues is out the window."
Activists in favor of open-source voting — a process by which citizens would have greater transparency into votes being tabulated — have been attending Elections Commission meetings in recent months and expressing dissatisfaction with Arntz's favoring of renewing the city's contract with Dominion Voting Systems.
Brent Turner, the communications director for the Open Voting Consortium, is one of those activists and he noted Arntz's "cheerleading against the open-source community," per the minutes to the commission's November 22 meeting. And when it came time for the commissioners to go into closed session to discuss the executive search, Turner was one of those who spoke during public comment suggesting that Arntz's "predisposition" toward Dominion was reason enough to open up the search.
According to the Chronicle, he commissioners have said the decision to conduct an executive search was not related to the issue of open-source voting, only the equity plan.
Update: Arntz tells Mission Local that he'll happily reup his contract, and he says, "I became director of elections because I was interested in operations, and now we have people here who are just fantastic in supporting operations for elections. We have this unbelievable investment toward supporting and helping voters. It’s amazing, and these sorts of situations don’t happen all the time in life. It’s unique to my work life and I think it’s unique for a lot of people.”
Top photo: A voter casts a ballot at a polling station in Friends Bar on November 3, 2020 in San Francisco, California. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)