Friday, June 20, 2014

Introducing, Soon, a Special Guest

Before coming to the Johnson County Election Office, I pondered greatly about what it would be like to replace someone I often now refer to as Miss Election USA.

Connie Schmidt, my predecessor, was recognized nationally as a leader in the election administration community.  There are plenty of books about leading a turnaround but few analyze taking the baton from someone well-regarded and keeping the momentum, particularly if you didn't know the person handing you the baton.

As an elected city council member in Shawnee in April 2002, I didn't know anything about Connie's national reputation.  But, I knew about her locally and saw her operation first-hand when running for office.

I toured the election office shortly after filing for office.   I met her two assistant election commissioners--both very impressive.  I handed them my candidate web bio and it was live on the jocoelection site before my brief tour was over.

Part of the tour included an introduction to a little runt of a computer that was proudly introduced to me as our soon-to-come "new" voting machines. 

Wow.  This was 2001, but these looked like the 286 computer issued to me in 1990 at Sprint. 

Moreover, there was genuine giddiness in the office about these devices.

I learned these machines were state-of-the-art in the voting machine world, but they were essentially large Palm Pilots.  Our diagnostics today include using a stylus to touch the center of the screen and all four corners, for instance--when's the last time you did that setting up an iPhone?

Still, I saw the footprint of the old machines and how much more economical these were from a space perspective, and I saw why the staff was pleased to make the change.

On election night, I was happy to find I was victorious but later that week became aware of a need for a recount after tabulation concerns once results were modemed back on election night.  (This, by the way, is why results to this day are hand-delivered back to the election office and why this practice is emulated by others nationwide.  You're welcome.)

Anyway, I came in on a Saturday to watch the recount, and it was absolutely the most boring, yet extremely professional, thing I've ever observed.  The outcomes didn't change, but little did I know I'd be working here years later, and I learned so much about being an election commissioner just from watching that office during that week.

In fact, my path to the election office started in 2004, when I was checking the election office website a couple of days after the presidential election.  I was surprised to see an announcement on the site that Connie was retiring.

I applied for the position and eventually was offered the appointment by the Kansas Secretary of State.

Soon after being appointed as election commissioner and after meeting with Connie, I saw a pattern that I hoped would change.  Many of the administrative and budget issues I have documented here over the last few weeks are long-term things, part of the culture really, and things Connie fought for nine years as well.

It was almost on schedule--my year two-issues tended to be her year-two issues, for instance.  Now, I've been here longer than Connie and have lost that historical touchpoint.

Acknowledging these struggles, it's worth pointing out that I'm also not into being a victim. 

I'm a believer that in any large organization, many can make a case that they are the overlooked or under-appreciated department or individual.  I've been in departments at Sprint where we felt oppressed, only to hear others tell us how lucky we were.  Often, it's all about perspective.

But the lack of investment in the election office and our voters is pretty evident, right down to the team photos we've taken annually over the last 20 years, showing the same number of individuals in the same non-ADA accessible building, and standing or sitting in the same room with the same carpet.

On a personal level, though, it can't be denied that the election commissioner compensation has lagged department heads in the county's administration building.  While there are around 30 departments and agencies at the county, the election commissioner isn't among the top 100 paid county employees, perhaps a good point for tax hawks but bad for those in this position or election administration overall.  The commissioner position, in fact, isn't rated at the same level as most department heads.

By statute, the election commissioner is to have a monthly car allowance, and during my initial meeting with Connie she told me the fight she had to have to it raised from $125 to $300, where it has been for more than 10 years.  No department head eligible for a car allowance has one that low, but a few managers do, including a manger in the transit department. (So, yes, the car allowance is the same as it is for someone whose job it is to get persons to ride the bus.)

The compensation issues carry downstream where our staff positions have traditionally been rated lower than I believe they should be.  We've made a bit of progress on that this year, but we use part-time $8.75-an-hour employees throughout our operation regularly.  If you've called or visited our office, odds are one of these outstanding individuals has helped you.

Generally, Connie and I both have had great support from the Board of County Commissioners but out of respect for the process, we rarely have gone to them directly (this position is appointed by the Secretary of State but funded by the Board). 

Fair to say, though, that while we both respected the process, we each have felt that the process didn't always respect us.

Budget issues aside, there are many cool things about this position--it's the closest thing to running a small business I think one can get in government.  We get tremendous support from the community (likely, dear reader, you are such a supporter, so thank you).

Last night for instance, I spoke to the Gardner-Edgerton Republican Group, and it is very personally gratifying to hear influentials in our community speak well of our office.
Last night's speaking
tour stop was the new
Perkins in Gardner. 

I have learned a lot from my predecessors, even those I never met.  I've read their notes, listened to those who worked with them, and drew conclusions about what worked and didn't work well.

Much of what we do in our office started under Connie's leadership.  The biggest thing I learned in what it takes to replace a Star is that the Star carried values that must remain.

Connie left, but I truly think that the concept that the office and the voting process must be protected over individual interests is as strong or stronger now than it was in 2004.

Maybe, those values are what lead to our budget woes, actually.  If so, we have no choice but to live in the budget environment we have because the values can't change.

I have my own views of what led to Connie retiring from a job she loved and was very good at, but I think it's best if you read it from her.

Next week, I'll be posting the first-ever guest post on ElectionDiary, from Connie, to give a different perspective of the budget issues especially.  It's budget time, our meeting with the Board is next week, and we're making a push at trying to move the budgetary needle in favor of our voters.

In the meantime, posted below is a book Connie and her staff developed more than 10 years ago.  It's the roadmap we will leverage again if and when we get budgetary approval to replace those Palm Pilotish machines.