Election walkout: One fired, three quit at Nevada County Clerk’s Office | TheUnion.com

Election walkout: One fired, three quit at Nevada County Clerk’s Office

The Nevada County Elections Office, responsible for ensuring accurate vote counts for thousands of county residents, lost four of its most experienced employees when the county clerk-recorder abruptly dismissed an administrative assistant Tuesday.

Shannon Tougher’s firing by Clerk-Recorder Kathleen Smith sparked a walkout by three temporary full-time employees: Karen Nichols, Karen Robinson and Karen Winguth. The three had worked at least eight elections each and said they loved spending the two to three months of election season in that office.

But they said mismanagement in the office – overseen by Smith since her appointment by the Board of Supervisors in June – led to low morale and doubt about the fate of the Nov. 2 election.

“Now that she has a new crew in there, God help this county,” Winguth said.

Smith said there is no reason for voters to be alarmed at the situation. It is “business as usual (at the elections office),” she said.

She said the elections office is now fully staffed – with six year-round employees and 12 temporary workers – despite Tuesday’s upheaval. But she would not say who filled the four vacated positions, citing a need for privacy in “personnel issues.”

“The key players are on duty,” she said.

While the exact reason for the dismissal remains a mystery to Tougher, she said, she suspects “it is a personality conflict, basically.”

But Tougher said personality differences aside, Smith had a responsibility to the voters not to fire her just weeks before an important election and that the decision to do so is just one more example of Smith’s inability to properly manage the office.

Winguth agreed, saying Tougher’s work at the office was “outstanding” and that she “put this election together.” Minutes after Tougher announced to the office she had been fired, the three coworkers decided to walk away from the situation.

Former Nevada County Clerk-Recorder Bruce Bolinger said he sympathized with the tough personnel decisions that often face department heads.

“In my own experience as a county clerk, it was a relief when the person (causing the problems) left. We were better off being short-handed,” he said.

Smith was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in June after former Clerk-Recorder Lorraine Jewett-Burdick resigned, and Smith quickly was thrown into an election significant on the city, county, state and national levels.

Supervisor Sue Horne, who proposed the nomination of Smith, said despite the recent loss of employees, “I have no concerns about (Smith’s) ability to perform the election.”

Smith too said she believes “the election is going perfect.”

Nichols, Robinson, and Winguth disagree.

On Monday, the Elections Office mailed out several thousand absentee ballots with a corrected “mistake.” Education Measures G and H appeared on all the ballots, rather than only the ballots for their specific districts. The error cost the taxpayers $4,000. Smith is ultimately responsible for the copy of the ballot sent to the printer, Tougher said.

Supervisor Peter Van Zant said this error raised alarm for him about what is going on in the Elections office.

“We haven’t had anything happen like that since I have been in office,” he said.

For Winguth, this is just one example of how Smith is poorly managing the election office’s budget.

“(Smith) is spending money like it is growing on trees,” Winguth said.

But Smith maintains that “we are within the guidelines of the election law” when it comes to budget spending. She said she would not know whether they had gone over their adopted budget until after the election.

Another concern cited by those who left was that Smith has looked to outside guidance and help rather than turning to those in her own office.

Winguth said that when she offered her services to train pollworkers, “(Smith) turned me down and hired a friend of hers.”

Smith would not say who she hired for the training, which occurs the last week of October and was overseen by the past two clerk-recorders themselves.

“That is not something I care to address,” Smith said Thursday.

Before Smith was named clerk-recorder, Tougher actually took a public stance against the Board of Supervisors’ first pick for the job. The board originally had selected former Supervisor Fran Freedle, an active Republican, but later rescinded its decision and voted to appoint Smith.

During the debate over Freedle’s selection, Tougher wrote a letter to the editor of The Union, blasting the choice:

“I am appalled at the Board of Supervisors’ decision to appoint Fran Freedle as clerk-recorder. How can the board justify appointing someone with absolutely no knowledge of election administration? Does the board expect Assistant Clerk-Recorder Joy Massey to do Fran’s work for her? Is the staff expected to ‘train’ Fran?”

She ended her letter with: “As I am sure this letter won’t make me too popular with my new boss, I wonder if I will still have a job in the Elections Office on July 1. I’ll let you know.”

Robinson said the three walkouts would be willing to return to work if “Kathleen left and someone else competent was put in her place.”

Regardless of what happens, Smith said she is sure the election will be accurate.

John Spencer, whose candidacy for the Board of Supervisors District 3 seat is at stake in the election, said, “I hope it doesn’t influence the outcome, but I don’t know.”

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