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Report Blames O.C. Registrar

But his mistakes didn't affect the outcome of a failed Capo school board recall drive, auditors find. Steps to protect data are urged.

September 14, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County registrar of voters failed to abide by basic election laws and procedures when handling a recall effort against trustees of the Capistrano Unified School District, but those errors did not affect the outcome of the failed campaign, according to a county audit released Wednesday.

The special review, ordered by the county Board of Supervisors, urged new safeguards to protect voter petitions from possible tampering when submitted to county elections officials. The report also urged the registrar to provide the public with simple, step-by-step instructions on how to conduct recall drives.

"We didn't see anything that was intentional," said Ernest Hawkins, a former Sacramento County registrar for 23 years and primary author of the review. "Our recommendations were to tighten up the process."

The 50,000-student Capistrano district has been hit with a series of controversies in recent years, capped by an intense but unsuccessful attempt to recall its seven elected trustees over allegations of fiscal mismanagement and misconduct. The recall drive failed when county Registrar Neal Kelley determined in December that the backers had not gathered enough valid signatures to force an election.

Recall proponents questioned Kelley's handling of the signature verification process as well as other actions that they said favored the district. Their criticism prompted the county supervisors in August to order an independent review of Kelley's handling of the matter. The Houston-based Election Center, a trade group for governmental elections workers, was hired to conduct the review.

One of the recall proponents' main allegations was that registrar employees repeatedly told them they could fill out the addresses of people who signed the petitions. Hawkins wrote that he found no proof that that had occurred.

State law requires voters to fill out their names and addresses on recall petitions, and says that if they are unable to do so, someone else can fill out the information for them as long as a witness is present and signs the petition as well.

Kelley's office disqualified thousands of signatures submitted by recall proponents because it appeared that people other than the voters had written in their addresses. In July, a judge upheld the disqualifications.

The report found that Kelley allowed school district officials to view signature petitions in violation of state law -- an error Kelley previously admitted -- and erred when he told district officials that signature verification and a special recall election would cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In December, the report said, Kelley learned that a 1987 court case prohibits counties from billing school districts for signature verification, but he didn't disclose that to the district until mid-January.

He should have disclosed his errors to all involved parties when he learned he was wrong, the report stated.

A confluence of factors, including heavy workload and little electoral experience by Kelley and a top deputy, contributed to the errors, the report said.

The report recommends that the office develop written policies that regulate the recall process from beginning to end, including clearly defining who may have access to petitions. It also urged the registrar to provide written documents that go over signature-gathering procedures for future recall proponents.

Other recommendations in the report included having the staff consult state law and the department's lawyers before answering complex legal questions, and securing documents such as recall petitions in a sealed, videotaped environment. "They need to document their procedures and their policy and they need to have clear information" for the public, Hawkins said.

Kelley declined to comment.

The $25,000 report will be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting.

Bill Campbell, the board chairman, said he expected the board to order Kelley to institute the recommendations.

"The fact that errors were made are disappointing," he said. "I just would prefer we learn from this and not have them happen again."

He added that he hoped the report would give recall proponents a sense of closure.

"I would hope they would look to the future rather than the past," he said.

Brad Goff, a recall proponent, said that while he didn't think the review thoroughly investigated his side's concerns about the signature-verification process, he was otherwise satisfied.

"The report does show there are some issues in the registrar's office that need to be addressed, so when the November election rolls around, any issues related to the competency of the registrar's office are taken care of and there's a fair election," he said.

The recall debate is far from over. The county district attorney's office raided school district offices in August and seized two computers and an unknown number of documents.

The county grand jury has subpoenaed district employees and is hearing their testimony. Mission Viejo city officials have called for an audit of the district's construction funding.

The district has hired a retired judge to conduct its own investigation of the allegations. And on Monday, the district's trustees approved paying for a defense attorney to represent former Supt. James Fleming in the criminal investigation.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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