Election Code Violations Intensify Already Roiling Barstow Political Contretemps

In recent months and years, Barstow has come into its own as a hotbed of political discontent. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this year’s election, held November 6, manifested a wave of allegations of voting and election law irregularities.
A little more than a month before the election, there was a harbinger of intensifying contretemps and controversy surrounding Barstow politics when JoAnn Cousino, who had been Barstow’s city clerk for more than two decades, abruptly resigned from that post, effective October 1, after questions were raised concerning her residency and eligibility to hold office. Cousino had been the city’s elections officer. Indeed, she had on occasion used that authority to disqualify would-be candidates for office. Those disqualifications had been made for a number of reasons, sometimes pertaining to a candidate-applicant’s filing papers being out of order, sometimes as a consequence of those signing the candidates’ filing papers not being properly registered or qualifying as Barstow residents and sometimes involving Cousino’s determination that the candidate was not qualified to run as a result of not meeting the Barstow residency requirement. What was alleged and reported was that Cousino herself was out of compliance with the residency requirement in that she had, during her tenure in office, lived not in Barstow but in both Yermo and Newberry. Many found it disquieting that Cousino, who had evinced a knowledge and consciousness with regard to residency requirements, would be out of compliance herself and still enforce those rules against others.
Subsequently, on October 15, the Barstow City Council allowed Cousino to rescind her resignation. Officials were unwilling to discuss Cousino’s actual residency status and would not confirm nor deny that in the intervening two weeks between her resignation and her reinstatement, she had found residency in the city that would put her in compliance with the law.
According to Cousino, who likewise avoided any direct discussion of her residency status, she voluntarily moved out of her elected position as city clerk out of the mistaken belief that she needed to do so to officially retire from another municipal employment position she holds – that of city clerk services manager. That position is one that was conferred upon her as a consequence of her holding the elected city clerk position, though there is no requirement that the city clerk also serve as the city clerk services manager. Cousino claimed she wanted to retire “in order to be eligible for my full pension. That is the only reason that I submitted my resignation for my elected city clerk service,” Cousino said. She said the California Public Employees Retirement System informed her after she had tendered her resignation that she could still serve in her elected capacity as city clerk – and draw her full pay in that capacity – and also draw her pension as a retired municipal employee.
This brought immediate howls of protest from some city residents, who believe that what Cousino is doing is tantamount to double dipping, and that a public employee is either employed or retired, and cannot be both.
Cousino’s situation exists as a case-in-point that illustrates the growing political schism in Barstow. On one side of that divide are the city’s staff, their families, their representatives and their supporters. On the other side of the divide are residents who believe that public employees are a class of elitist prima donnas unto themselves who believe they are entitled to salaries that are on average higher than those available in the private sector and augmented by benefits, including guaranteed pensions, that dwarf those available in the private sector and what is available to everyday citizens who do not work for the government.
This is exacerbated, these residents say, by the consideration that a majority of the city council – Councilman Merrill Gracey, Councilman Rich Harpole and Councilwoman Carmen Hernandez – are retired public employees who are themselves pulling fat public employee pensions. The balance of the city council therefore sides with the city’s municipal employees on any matters where there is a conflict between the interests of the citizens and city workers, these residents say.
This group of residents has become increasingly more vocal in the last two years, with many of its ranks showing up at city council meetings. They are in favor of voting the retired public officials off the council and replacing them with those employed within the private sector, and thereafter remaining vigilant in future elections to make sure that no public employees are voted into office. They liken having public employees serving in public office to allowing the monkeys to run the zoo or the inmates to run the asylum.
For their part, the public office-holding public employees consider those who begrudge them their positions in elective office to be a bunch of inveterate malcontents who are simply envious of how well public employees have done for themselves. They believe that those who work for government are the cream that has risen to the top of society and that they deserve all that they can get and more, are more intelligent than the great unwashed masses, and as such are more qualified to occupy the positions of community decision-makers.
In this year’s election, the rubber of these differing philosophies met the road in the form of Measure Q, which called for a one cent per dollar sales tax override to augment the city’s operations. Technically, if the sales tax were to have been committed to any single specific use, it would have required, under California law, two-thirds approval to pass. Thus, the city council, which sponsored the measure, did not officially commit to using the money for any specified purpose. Nevertheless, the council offered its unofficial word that the proceeds will be used to shore up the Barstow Fire Department. This had many Barstow residents crying foul, saying the council was most certainly violating the spirit of the law and probably the letter of the law as well. Measure Q, they said, is emblematic of the pro-public employee bias at City Hall and on the city council, which takes recourse in taxing residents to continue to pay for bloated public employee salaries and pensions.
An example of the manner in which the political faction in Barstow militating on behalf of city employees has crossed the line in unfairly and illegally influencing public events and action in its favor came, these City Hall critics allege, during the November 6 election. Pro-measure Q advocates set up tables near the city’s polling places to promote the measure, offering voters bottled water. Those tables were manned, during normal business hours on a weekday, by city employees. Prominent at the tables were signs calling for the passage of Measure Q. At at least one of the city’s polling places, that one located at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the table was set up between 42 and 43 feet away from the entrance to the polling place, which is a violation of the election code, which requires that any political advertising, signs, references to candidates or measures on the ballot or electioneering activity take place no closer than 100 feet to the polling place. No effort to prevent that electioneering activity or to remove the signs was undertaken by election officials.
Moreover, state law prohibits public employees from engaging in political advocacy during their working hours while serving in their public capacity. City Hall’s critics decried the use of public money and public resources to fund an electioneering effort, that one in support of Measure Q.
Another election code violation that took place in Barstow consisted of the poll workers refusing to make the roster of those who had voted in the election available for inspection. Under the election code, that roster is supposed to be posted and visible at the polling place and is to be updated continuously as voters cast their ballots. That section of the elections code exists for a multitude of reasons, including promoting a transparent voting process. Posting of the roster allows residents of the precinct, many of whom have a more intimate knowledge of the district than at least some of the elections office workers who do not reside locally, to monitor the voting activity and detect if votes have been cast by ineligible voters, such as by those, for example, masquerading as local voters or registered voters that may be known to the observer as deceased. Another reason for the posting is to allow candidates involved in the election to monitor the turnout and engage in efforts to encourage those who have not yet voted to turn up at the polls to vote.
John Coffey, a poll observer for the Democratic Party, told the Sentinel he observed multiple violations of the California Elections Code at Barstow polling places. Those included, Coffey said, the Yes on Measure Q table at the polling place at Barstow’s Seventh Day Adventist Church which was well within the 100-foot restriction area wherein electioneering activity and signage is prohibited.
Coffey said the poll workers in Barstow further failed to post the voter roster containing full identifying information pertaining to the registered voters of those precincts with the names of the voters who had voted lined through as is required by law.
Questions of Bob Page, San Bernardino County’s principal management analyst who was elevated to the position of interim registrar of voters some four months before the election, were diverted to Melissa Eickman, who is the public information manager at the registrar of voters office and was formerly the chief deputy registrar of voters in Riverside County.
With regard to the placement of the Measure Q promotional tables within 100 feet of the polling places in Barstow, Eickman said, “I looked into that issue at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Barstow with the table that had a Yes on Q sign, and you said they were handing out water as well. I looked through all of our phone calls on election day, and I found nothing that resembled this report. I can’t find where anyone had reported anything on this issue. We certainly would take an electioneering report, and we do take electioneering reports very seriously. But on this one we didn’t receive anything so we didn’t go out and take care of that.”
As to the posting of the voter rosters, Eickman said the information with regard to who had voted was not displayed on the walls of the polling places but rather “entered into binders” that are kept at the polling places and are available to be examined by anyone who wishes to monitor who has voted. “That way, anyone connected with a campaign, or anyone else, can photo what is in the binder and then send that back to their campaign headquarters to check against the voting lists,” Eickman said.
That is not good enough, Coffey said. “The requirement for the posting of the voter roster at each polling location is contained in Election Code sections 14202 and 14223(b),” Coffey said. “At least once each hour on election day after the polls open until 6 p.m., a precinct board member shall identify, in the space provided on the voter list posted at or near the polling place, those voters who have voted by drawing a line through their names, according to Election Code section 14294(a). When I asked about the voter roster at one of the polling places in Barstow I was shown the binder, which had pages into which someone, I believe the same person based upon the similarity of the handwriting, had entered the names of those who had voted. Any other identifying information as specified in the Election Code, such as address or party affiliation was not listed. Nor were the names and addresses of those who had yet to vote available in that binder. So, what they offered me was useless for my purposes, which was to find voters registered as Democrats who were not shown as having voted and to call them or contact them to find out if they had not already voted by mail ballot and encourage those who had yet to vote to do so.”
Coffey continued, “The polling supervisor of the polling place located at Montara Elementary School felt my inquiries regarding the voter roster were disruptive and threw me out of the polling place about 6:10 p.m. I remained within sight of the polling place door until 8 p.m.”
Coffey confirmed that at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Barstow, advocates for the passage Measure Q had set up a table that was within the 100 foot perimeter from the polling place entrance wherein electioneering activity is prohibited. He provided the Sentinel with three photos of the table, which was outfitted with an overhead sun shade, that were taken from a distance. “The table had city workers manning it, and I did not think it would be wise to get confrontational with them about how they were in violation of the election code,” Coffey said. “If they would have called the police, I don’t think they would have sided with me.”
Coffey noted that many if not most of the polling places in Barstow were overseen by members of the existing Barstow political and elected establishment. “The polling place supervisor where that particular Yes on Q booth was located was Barbara Rose,” Coffey said. “She is an elected member of the Barstow Unified School District’s governing board.”
Barstow voters passed Measure Q by a margin of 2,466 votes or 59.54 percent to 1,676 votes or 40.46 percent. As of Tuesday, however, Councilman Gracey was trailing in his reelection effort, having received 326 votes or 30.64 percent to the 256 votes for James Noble in Barstow’s District 2 race.
Mark Gutglueck

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