Registrar Of Voters Departs With Election Less Than Four Months Off

Registrar of Voters Michael J. Scarpello, who has been San Bernardino County’s chief elections officer for more than seven years, was forced into resigning yesterday, less than four months before the November election and just as the employees he directed were gearing up to handle the November balloting.
“I can confirm that the registrar of voters tendered his
resignation yesterday,” said county spokesman David Wert. “I cannot go beyond that, other than to say that Mr. Scarpello’s resignation was in no way related to any problems with the integrity of San Bernardino County’s election system. He has done a phenomenal job in coordinating our elections.”
That task has always been a challenging one in far-flung San Bernardino County, which at 20,105 square miles comprises more total land area than does a combination of four New England states combined. On election nights, ballots collected from the county’s disparate polling precinct locations are speedily collected and transported by sheriff’s deputies to the registrar’s office in San Bernardino where they are tallied. Transport from the most distant locales is effectuated by helicopter. With only a few notable exceptions, none of which occurred under Scarpello’s watch, the rapid early counts of voting results reported on election nights or in the early a.m. of the following day have been consistent with the final formal and more methodical counting done to derive the official results weeks later.
Scarpello came to San Bernardino County in April 2011, after serving as the director of elections for the City and County of Denver in Colorado. Prior to his tenure in Colorado, Scarpello had been elections manager in Douglas County, Nebraska, which includes the City of Omaha. He had been credited with improvements to the voting system there that were subsequently incorporated into the entirety of the voting process in Nebraska.
Word of Scarpello’s Thursday departure, which was rumored to be a sacking, spread quickly. Last night, at a meeting of the San Bernarardino County Democratic Central Committee’s executive board, that panel took immediate action to draft a resolution to be presented to the full central committee calling for condemning the action against Scarpello.
The Sentinel has verified that Scarpello did resign; nevertheless, the Sentinel is informed, his leaving was not voluntary. Rather, it appears, Scarpello was confronted by Assistant County Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez and informed that if he did not resign, he would be terminated.
According to those with a close window on the Registrar of Voters Office’s operations, the county elections division’s high efficiency and productivity is in large measure a function of Scarpello’s dictatorial personality which resulted in what was described as a “tyrannical domination” of those working there.
That approach was evident from the start of Scarprello’s time as registrar and efforts to have him attenuate his harsh methods proved ineffective, as he asserted that the tight rein and taut ship strategy he used was undeniably effective in achieving the results which the county was demanding of him. On one occasion, the Sentinel is told, after an employee filed a grievance, Scarpello assembled the entirety of the office’s staff and decried such complaints up the county chain of command above him, saying such dissent was destructive to an organization in which members had to be team players.
During his first six years in office, the county’s senior administrators were willing to overlook Scarpello’s sometimes abrasive relations with his underlings and his insistence on being a stern taskmaster. After Leonard Hernandez’s ascendancy last year to the post variously described as assistant county executive officer or county chief operating officer, which is the county governmental structure’s second-in-command, Scarpello’s unwillingness to conform to a more accommodationist approach in managing his staff grew more critical. It was this week, in the relative respite from tension during the ebb preceding the hectic November election and following the heavy flow of the office’s activity during the June Primary election that a decision was made to move Scarpello out. In his place, the county has substituted Bob Page, who holds the title of transformational governmental administrator with the county’s human resources department. Page will serve as the interim registrar of voters while the county conducts a nationwide search for Scarpello’s replacement.
The county has not had, particularly, outstanding luck with its registrars of voters.
In the odd-year election held in November 2001, a programming error with the computer used to scan and record the votes on the punch card ballots then in use resulted in the county initially declaring as winners 13 candidates who were ultimately later determined to have lost in that year’s election. An election office worker was initially being blamed for that faux-pas, but ultimately, the then-registrar, Ingrid Gonzales, was let go by the board of supervisors, amid calls for ending the county’s use of paper ballots. The board eventually settled on hiring as her replacement Scott Konopasek, who had held an election office post in Washington State. Konopasek recommended that the county purchase, at what ultimately turned out to be a cost of $14 million, a touch screen voting system manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems. The county had committed to using that system in the 2004 Primary, which was held that year in California in March. Prior to that election, however, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley withdrew his certification of electronic voting machines throughout the state because, he said, they could be vulnerable to tampering. Konopasek confidently went ahead with using the newly purchased machines in that year’s elections, asserting they had been previously certified. The county backed Konopasek, but less than two weeks after the November 2004 election, Konopasek and Steve Trout were relieved of their positions as the county’s registrar of voters and assistant registrar of voters, respectively.
Subsequently, Konopasek, who has now gone on to become the assistant registrar of voters in Contra Costa County, said that ballot stuffing was taking place in San Bernardino County.
Konopasek was replaced on a temporary basis by Donna Manning, a top tier assistant in the registrar’s office.
In 2007, Kari Verjil, who had been the registrar of voters in Riverside County, came to San Bernardino County to serve as registrar of voters. She was in place four years, leaving to return to Riverside County, which led to Scarpello’s selection to replace her in 2011.
The county’s investment in the Sequoia touch screen voting system did not pay off. Though the California Secretary of State eventually recertified the system conditional upon the incorporation of software patches intended to enhance Sequoia program security and protect it from cyber attacks and hacking, a decision was eventually made to cease using the Sequoia touch screen machines in San Bernardino County, with the exception of one at each polling place for use by handicapped individuals. Instead, the county for the last several years has used paper, i.e., oversized cardboard ballots, which voters mark with a black ink pen.
Reportedly, a secondary issue that pushed county administration toward moving Scarpello out of the registrar of voters position was efforts he had been making over the last few years to have the county move to a fully digitized voting system. Given the county’s experience with the Sequoia system and the anticipated expense of adopting the program Scarpello was advocating, former County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux and his interim successor, Dena Smith, followed by current county CEO Gary McBride as well as County Chief Operating Officer Hernandez were unwilling to accommodate Scarpello on that score, increasing the general level of friction with him.
-Mark Gutglueck

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