This job never fails to surprise. Just when I think I have a handle on how all the wheels of government creak and turn, a thrown wrench highlights that old adage about making assumptions.
The most recent revelation was that the county Elections Office doesn’t verify the qualifications of candidates for elected office. That job falls on the shoulders of opponents and, ultimately, a judge. Unless another contender raises questions and points fingers, the process is at its core an honor system. Check a box, sign a line and certify you meet the legal requirements of that particular office. As long as the signatures are valid — and this the Elections Office does verify — all is good.
At least until someone cries foul.
Then everybody involved gets to lawyer up, spend some money and wait to see who and what will be printed on the final ballot.
The news that the Elections Office doesn’t have some greater verification process came to light last week when one controller candidate questioned the credentials of another. Unlike some county offices that have some pretty basic mandates — high school diploma or law degree, for instance — the controller qualification list looks more like a dreaded high school math problem with four different ways to meet the mark. Three aspects are black and white: Certified public accountant, accounting degree, serving as assistant controller for at least three years. Not much quibbling about those. But then there’s that pesky “five years in senior fiscal management position” caveat. Shades of gray.
Chief Elections officer Mark Church said that is a decision best left in the hands of the court as has been the commonly accepted practice in San Mateo County and in several other California counties. The state doesn’t give elections officials any greater definition of the legislative intent which is why Church said it’s best left to the court to make a final and objective ruling on such subjective criteria.
But the day the Daily Journal first reported the controller court petition, much of the reader response was not about whether the questioned candidate really does meet the threshold but why in the heck a judicial review is even necessary.
What does the Elections Office even do and what authority its chief officer has was one question. Does the office even check out a candidate’s voter status and residency? Another wondered how the parties can even head to court if the Elections Office didn’t first take a stand on which an argument can be made. Others said that while proper perhaps it just looks a little iffy. One wanted to know his options if he personally wanted to verify that a candidate is what he or she says she is. Would he have to spend his own money filing a lawsuit, too?
In other words, the controller candidates are in question but for some it is the Elections Office in the hot seat.
I took the questions directly to Church since the ins and outs of elections operations and law are way above my pay grade. Each candidate signs a paper declaration of candidacy certifying he or she is qualified and, while it is not under penalty of perjury, the signer could be dinged for falsifying documents, Church said.
Church also said he has the authority not to qualify a candidate if it is crystal clear the person falls short on a requirement for which there is no wiggle room — admittance to the state Bar, for example, although he adds those are generally not where the issues fall. And would Jane and Joe Public need a trip to court to verify the folks on the ballot? Each case is different, Church said.
The bottom line is while the initial quandary is whether the controller’s race will be contested this term, the lingering questions for some constituents are much more puzzling.
At least one of these two should be resolved in the next week. After all, the most surprising thing about these elected jobs should never be that the office holders aren’t qualified.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.