Sunday, July 6, 2014

I'll Gladly Trade You Tuesday

We have emerged from the budget process with much news and I will have a post soon on the summary of that.

Dinner at local restaurant, Chen's, and an appropriate
message the night following our budget presentation.
We had tremendous support from the Board of County Commissioners on our path towards a new voting system and also with regards to funding our first new headcount in 20 years.

My primary objective with the budget process was to simply agree upon a plan that would lead us to the funding of a new voting system. 

We did that.  And, we did it at a perfect time, amidst some meetings I've been at with academics and industry supporters who will be able to provide us assistance through the process.

Secondarily, we needed some guidance as to what it would take to add headcount to fulfill our growing needs.  Our last approved headcount goes back to the time Bill Clinton was president.

The election world changed greatly with the George Bush/Al Gore election and the subsequent Help America Vote Act of 2002, let alone state legislation impacting operations in Kansas.  From a headcount perspective, our office has been stuck in the 1990s.

During the first budget cycle after I came to the county, in 2005, we requested three positions--one for registration, one for planning, and one for outreach.  It's hard to argue, in retrospect, that they weren't needed, but we didn't get support from the county manager's office at the time and, in fact, we've never had the county manager, in my time here, support any request for headcount at the election office.

It may not have felt like it then, but, economically, 2005 represented the "good times," and in 2008, all county departments began taking one for the team to deal with the budget crisis.

In fact, we all took another, and another, and another, and all county departments had some pretty lean days during that time.

That process showed me how government budgets are a bit of an economic lagging indicator--because much of government funding is based on tax dollars and because tax dollars generally are a byproduct of income and real estate value, government is often the last to take the hit from a slow economy and the last to see the upswing as the economy improves.

All to say, we hit a period of higher expectations at a time when resources, understandably, were at their scarcest.

Elections, though, are the most basic service of government.  Arguably, elections are the most important thing government does because without elections, there is no government.

And, from a headcount perspective, we have hit a wall.  So, I was gratified that that Board, actually, led the charge to support our request this year.

Locally, the large school districts should benefit from this as well because the timing of this position--if we can get the person on board January 1--allows us to support their needs to have a mail-ballot election in January, rather than June.

The approved position is for a modest level, the most common level at the county, and one that sounds more expensive from a budget perspective than its actual pay because the budget dollars are fully loaded to cover benefits.

The final approval and discussion, however, wasn't without a Scooby Doo "Whaa?" moment or two, particularly when the county manager suggested removing funding for two vacant positions that have taken forever to fill because of the county process and using those two positions to fund the one we were requesting.

That would leave us, of course, down one position and not increase our staff.

I'm still puzzled with that one.  If this blog were a video or if the event were live television, rather than a typed account, you would have seen me turning around to face the camera with a deadpanned blank stare after that recommendation.

A big reason for the delay in filling the open positions is the process we've had to undergo to have the position descriptions evaluated.  There simply hasn't been a shared sense of urgency in filling those with our county's human resource department, which reports to the county manager.

I've posted the video here when this one-for-two idea was proposed.  Go to 2:40 for the "we can eliminate two positions we've slowly taken through the process so they can have this new position" solution.

Thankfully, Commissioner Ed Eilert and other members of the Board saw through the fuzzy math.

Commissioner Eilert's argument was that because we hadn't been able to fill the positions we have open yet--not by our choice, by the way--we will save, in 2014, at least the cost of the position for 2015, making this a 2016 problem.  The budget process doesn't allow for such a clean swap, but the logic was clean and he stuck with it, to the benefit of our voters.

As we try to fill the positions that are currently open, a common piece of frustration is being told that what we need out of positions isn't appropriate, that we don't need the skill sets or levels I think we need to run the election office.  It's a case, really, of the support function in the county--which exists to help those on the front line--overstepping.

Problem is, these organizations aren't accountable to our voters.  We are.

Essentially, this is another example of the county manager attempting to have authority without accountability over us, and with these positions vacant for all of 2014, it's been killing us.  We're virtually assured of not having these positions filled for eight months, until after the August election.

This week, as I had a meeting with our human resources contact (they use the title "partner"), I advocated unsuccessfully why I believe these positions should require a bachelor's degree.  I literally have fought this issue, to no avail, for five years.

In other communities, this baseline education requirement, with experience that can be substituted, is common.  In other parts of the county (such as the county manager's office and human resources), this is a requirement.  When it comes to other parts of the county, though, I was told they were "different kinds of positions" that required more skills.

One of my arguments is that our office deals with a diverse group of voters, party chairs, candidates, and stakeholders who often have college degrees.  They expect to be greeted by those of comparable capabilities.

I was told this was condescending.  Never mind, of course, that it feels condescending to be told by a support organization that they know our business better than I do.

I explained that we are all about building future leaders of our office and that eventually, those we hire, hopefully, will be candidates for our senior positions in our office and that I would not expect someone at that level to not have at least a bachelor's degree.  Why would we hire someone who we didn't foresee could move along that path?

We left it that I would provide contacts for election offices that have position descriptions that required such degrees, so this post is a bit of a siren call asking for colleagues to please send me anything you have (to, please).  I will be contacting some offices as well.

A few hours later, I did see that night, on Craigslist, a post for an entry-level job at the election office in nearby Kansas City, Missouri, for a voter outreach and communications specialist.  The position pays $15,000 less than our positions, but requires a college degree.

More to the point, as I left the meeting and went back to my office, I saw an article in the Kansas City Star related to a post that named Overland Park as one of the smartest cities in the United States.

I guess because our office is in Olathe, that's irrelevant?

More to the point, though, the dumb-down factor is eliminated when driving two miles to the south to the administration building, where a bachelor's degree frequently is a requirement.

This really highlights two key issues:

First, as the election commissioner in the largest county in the state and tenured longer than 80 percent of elections commissioners in the history of the state, as a former director of strategic planning for a $10 billion division of a Fortune 50 company, and as an instructor in the area's largest MBA program and a member of Baker's Faculty Senate, I think I know a smidge about the talent acquisition strategy we need at our office.

To be told otherwise by part of the county manager's staff is incredulous.

Further, blocking my request that the positions require a specific education level is a violation of Kansas law, specifically KSA 19-3434, that takes from county and other local officers "all power and authority now exercised by them in relations to the supervision, conduct and control of elections within each county to which this act applies, and it is hereby made the duty of all public officials to cooperate fully with the election commissioner in response to any written request made to them by said election commissioner..."

Second, more broadly, it points to the perception that many of us in elections have discussed regarding the professionalism and certification needs for all of our employees.  Election Center certification has value, but it's unlikely a new recruit would have such a certification.  There has to be some global way that election positions are valued comparably to other positions in government.

I have some thoughts on that.  After the election, and after some upcoming posts on provisional ballots, the budget summary, polling place tools, I'll get to that.

Coming up next, though, will be a provisional ballot discussion.

That's about as geeky of an election administrator teaser as there is.  It will take some time to construct the post, but hopefully it will be up by mid-week.