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An interesting story has emerged from Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix), where a former Secretary of State has indicated his interest in taking over the county election job – but only if it is separated from the county recorder’s office which just changed partisan hands for the the first time in decades. AZCentral has more:
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett is hoping for a job with Maricopa County, but only if county officials take elections authority away from Recorder Adrian Fontes, the newly elected Democrat.
County officials don’t seem keen on the idea.
Bennett, a Republican, called members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors recently with a pitch, according to officials: If the supervisors split off the elections department from the Recorder’s Office, they could appoint him elections director and have him report directly to the board.
“I’ve talked with some of the supervisors and let them know if things came to that and they needed an option, I’d like to be on the list,” Bennett told The Arizona Republic. Bennett, former president of the Arizona Senate, unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014 and Congress in 2016…
Bennett, a Prescott native who moved back there after living in Phoenix for years, is now a business consultant. When asked if he planned to apply to be elections director if the position remained under the Recorder’s Office, Bennett said he would not.
“I would want to be the director of that department and have the independence and report directly to the board” like a CEO, he said.
Maricopa County currently operates under an agreement signed way back in 1955 that consolidates the recorder’s office and the county election department for efficiency. But now, some policymakers want to review that arrangement:
State Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, introduced legislation in January that would require local governments to review all intergovernmental agreements every eight years, holding up Maricopa County’s elections arrangement, which has no sunset date, as a symbol of the need for reform. The bill appears stalled.
Though county officials have criticized that bill as overly broad, Maricopa County Board Chairman Denny Barney acknowledged reviewing the elections agreement is a good idea.
“There is not a ton of clarity in that document,” which hasn’t been updated since 1985, he said.
One issue, apparently, is the desire to provide more direct oversight, especially after the challenges the county faced last year:
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is scheduled [today] to advise the supervisors behind closed doors on clarifying the agreement. The board’s election oversight may have gotten “lax,” Barney said.
“For a number of decades we relied on a body of experience” in former leaders of the Recorder’s Office, who were from different political parties, to run elections. Now the board is asking, “How involved should we be with the elections director?” Barney said.
Last year, the supervisors approved in a brief vote the previous recorder’s plan to deeply cut polling places in the presidential-preference election to save money. The decision led to hours-long voter waiting lines. Voter anger helped propel Fontes into office.
It seems clear for now, however, that county is not interested in limiting the new recorder’s authority:
No matter what, Fontes will be involved in decisions about the future of the Elections Department, said Barney, a Republican.
“Some wholesale change for political reasons, where we rip this out of the hands of the recorder, that’s not the intention,” he said.
Supervisor Steve Gallardo, a Democrat, went further.
“I don’t think it makes any rational sense to move elections out from underneath the Recorder’s Office,” he said. “I believe it will cost us more money in the long run to separate that office. And separating the elections function away from the Recorder’s Office does not erase or clean up the mistakes from last year. So what are we trying to fix?”
Indeed, the major focus of that office is to hire a new elections director – and all indications are that politics will not be a part of the process given the demands of the job:
Matt Morales, the recorder’s intergovernmental relations director, said any partisan effort to wrest control of the Elections Department is misguided.
“The belief that the county recorder is so petty he would look at somebody’s party designation over his ability to do a good job (as elections director) is damn near disgusting,” Morales, a former GOP legislative candidate, said. “(Fontes) is somebody who looks at somebody’s record and the work they do and the skills necessary to do the job. He’s not looking for a political appointee.”
Morales noted that the elections director will need a range of logistical skills similar to a project manager’s. They are different than the high-level policy experience of a secretary of state.
“The best ones are like amazing air-traffic controllers, rather than people sitting in an office at the secretary of state,” Morales said.
This is definitely a story worth watching; Maricopa was bound to see some changes in its elections operation as a result of Fontes’ defeat of longtime recorder Helen Purcell in last year’s election. But local officials seem wise to resist wholesale changes to an election department just months after that election – and the County’s search for a new election director will be important, given both the size and diversity of the community as well as all of the other changes underway in that office. Stay tuned …