By PAUL J. YOUNG
City News Service
RIVERSIDE – The Board of Supervisors Tuesday signed off on a $3 million-a-year contract with a ballot printing firm for upcoming elections in Riverside County, though the chairman and one other supervisor hesitated in supporting the agreement based on another vendor’s complaints about actions by the now-former registrar of voters.
“There are some real discrepancies,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said prior to the 5-0 vote in favor of the county contract with Porterville-based ProVote Solutions. “I am not confident this was a fair deal.”
Jim Suver, spokesman for Phoenix-based Runbeck Election Services, appeared before the board to request that the county continue an extension agreement for election services through June 2024. Runbeck had been under contract with the Office of the Registrar of Voters since 2018.
“We have been a stalwart vendor. But we shared some not-so-favorable information about (the former registrar),” Suver said, referring to an independent audit conducted earlier this year by former Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.
In a letter submitted to board Chairman Kevin Jeffries on Sept. 21, Runbeck expressed concerns that former Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer engaged in “contract retaliation” after the company cooperated with Kelley, turning over documents that he had requested.
“In multiple instances in 2022, the registrar attempted to use Runbeck as a shield to cover up certain mistakes that she had caused,” according to the company.
Kelley’s audit, which ran from March to July at a cost of $26,750 to the county, was intended to identify deficiencies in the registrar’s office to which corrective measures could be applied to improve operations.
The probe resulted in multiple findings pointing to the need for change.
Kelley wrote that the “entire process of ballot material preparation, production and proofing … should be modernized” because “Riverside County is consistently the last in the state among medium- and large-sized counties” to distribute information ahead of statutory deadlines.
The audit found communication breakdowns were a routine problem in the Office of the Registrar of Voters and that sound financial practices were a concern.
“While I was conducting my review, (ROV staff) were still working on billing from the November 2022 general election,” Kelley wrote.
He found that Spencer, who was appointed to the top spot in 2014, had been exceedingly involved in minute details connected to all operations, failing to delegate many tasks.
“My observations are that she has taken these tasks on because she either dealt with them directly during her previous roles in the department, or she has encountered errors along the way,” Kelley said.
“She started with the ROV as a temporary employee during high school and moved through multiple positions over the years,” he added. “This is both positive and negative, depending on the cycle of the operation.”
The office has been plagued with difficulties going back well over a decade, under different leadership, running budget deficits and experiencing challenges reporting election results. Spencer was an assistant to Barbara Dunmore, who was fired in November 2010 following a clash with the board over a series of technical foul-ups during the general election that year.
On Friday, the Executive Office announced Spencer had resigned after being placed on paid administrative leave two weeks earlier. The county and Spencer “entered into a settlement agreement whereby the parties mutually agree that this action is done solely for the purposes of compromise and to eliminate the burden and expense of any litigation,” according to an Executive Office statement.
The agreement specifies a $799,591 payout to Spencer.
Jeffries agreed with Runbeck that “they were not at fault for what occurred” on Spencer’s watch.
“They have the documentation to back up their claims,” he said, asking county Chief Operating Officer Juan Perez whether it was really necessary to drop an extension to the Runbeck contract in preference to a new five-year agreement with ProVote.
Perez replied that Runbeck competed with ProVote and another vendor, and the contract vetting process in August involved six people — two of whom were Registrar of Voters’ employees — who engaged in “blind scoring” to determine the best fit for the county going forward.
“The process was followed scrupulously,” he said. “We stand behind the work that was done. It was an independent evaluation (of prospective vendors).”
Jeffries said he preferred not “to be in the business of second- guessing the process, if done fairly and ethically.”
“I feel that the current company (Runbeck) was wronged on so many levels, doing everything they were told to do,” the chair said. “Now they’re hung out to dry. But we’re trying to clean the slate and start fresh.”
Spiegel said her “first instinct is to vote no” on the compact with ProVote. But she worried that going against the Executive Office’s recommendation would jeopardize operations in an already-troubled department.
She and Jeffries were assuaged after learning the ProVote agreement could be canceled at any time.
Assistant Registrar Art Tinoco has been appointed interim registrar while a recruitment campaign is conducted to find a new chief.
For More Riverside County News visit www.zapinin.com/riverside-county-news.