By Cory Bilicko
Bringing an end to one of the most contentious campaign seasons in recent Signal Hill history, on Tuesday night in Council Chambers that city’s election officials announced the results of the City Council election, with incumbents Tina Hansen and Larry Forester again securing seats on that five-member governing body. This term will be the fourth for Forester, who has served on the Council since 1998. Hansen, who has been on the Council since 1994, will be entering her fifth term as a result of this election.
By 9:30pm Tuesday, poll workers from all three precincts in the city had turned in their respective ballots, and all but 116 vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots had been counted. Those 116 will be sent to the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RRCC) for signature verification. California Elections Code Section 3019 requires the election official to compare the voter’s signature on the vote-by-mail ballot with that appearing on the affidavit of registration. “We made the decision at the beginning of the absentee period to have signatures on the VBM ballots verified by the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk,” said Signal Hill Deputy City Clerk Becky Burleson, who oversaw the election process. “To be clear, the actual voted ballots are stored in a secured area in City Hall. We photocopy the ID envelope with the voter’s signature and address and submit the photocopy to the RRCC for verification. We then staple the verified photocopy to the yellow voter ID envelope.”
A provisional ballot is issued at the poll when a voter’s registration cannot be verified, such as when the voter is at the wrong polling place or isn’t registered to vote, or if the record shows that the voter applied for a VBM ballot and cannot produce the ballot to surrender to the precinct workers. “These ballots are placed in a separate envelope and returned with the precinct supplies to the election official,” Burleson said. “We then ensure that the voter did not vote twice by either going to the correct polling place or that the voter did not also vote by mail. The signature and address on provisional ballot envelopes are also verified by the RRCC.”
According to City Clerk Kathleen Pacheco, who was present during the ballot-verification and tabulating processes but did not actively participate in those procedures since her name was on the ballot for her current position, albeit unopposed, the election outcome announced that night was “unofficial” and the official results will be provided today (March 4) after the provisional and vote-by-mail ballots have been tallied.
The unofficial results, which were computed through an Excel spread sheet and then projected onto a large pull-down screen that night, indicate that Forester garnered 511 votes (or 35.2 percent), Hansen received 574 votes (or 39.6 percent) and challenger Matt Simmons acquired 364 votes (or 25.1 percent), all of whom were seeking Council seats. Pacheco received 675 votes, and incumbent Emerson Fersch, also unopposed in his quest for city treasurer, garnered 657 votes.
One of the issues that made the campaign so controversial was the fact that Simmons’s WordPress blog entitled “Your Signal Hill Voice” features posts by its visitors that allege there has been election fraud within the City of Signal Hill. One post attributed to “Concerned Citizens Against Political Corruption in Signal Hill” that does not otherwise identify its members, and dated Feb. 1, 2011, outright accuses “city election officials” of “past election fraud.” The post states: “We found four elections were fixed in the last 19 years when Senor [sic] Councilman Mike Noll and Sara Hanlon were elected through massive voter registration fraud in 1992. Present Council members Larry Forester and Ellen Ward played a major roll [sic] in this fraud.”
Since WordPress, a free web software, enables its bloggers to approve or remove any and all comments posted by visitors of their blogs, Simmons’s inclusion of the aforementioned comment on his site has been seen by his opponents as complicity. However, Simmons wrote a post on that blog on Feb. 20, 2011 that appears to disclaim those accusations against the City: “There are a number of residents who are concerned about possible election fraud. I believe everything is on the up and up; however, we need to give our residents confidence about our democratic process by eliminating mysterious ballots and preventing voting irregularities. The democratic process is more important than the results.”
When asked if he thought the City’s election process had been fair and legal, after the results had been given, Simmons responded by calling it “absolutely fair” and commended Burleson for her work. “I would like to thank Becky Burleson. I want to give her credit for doing an absolutely wonderful job,” he said. “The City provided transparency every step of the way. They kept us informed, and the election was fair every step of the way.”
If there was indeed any skepticism about the integrity of Signal Hill’s election process, those doubts were likely put to rest Tuesday night; City staff members who were verifying incoming ballots and working alongside Martin & Chapman Co. election consultants were themselves being closely watched by Simmons, Signal Hill resident Gloria Nava, and Maria Harris, also a Signal Hill resident who has appeared to be Simmons’s most vocal proponent but claims she is in no way officially linked to his campaign. Those City staff members included: Burleson; Elise McCaleb, redevelopment manager; Kim Boles, administrative department secretary; and Mary Gilmore, assistant to city manager in the personnel department.
As McCaleb, Boles and Gilmore sat in the Chamber’s dais, Burleson walked among them, supervising the process of verifying the ballots, including vote-by-mail forms, then those submitted from polling places. Placed before each staff member was a print-out entitled “A Guide to Acceptable and Non-Acceptable Ballot Markings,” to which she referred while checking each ballot. “They’re verifying that ballot marks will be accurately read by the tabulating machines,” Burleson told this reporter. “They’re checking for folds, tears and small dots that might not be read. They’re verifying that they are all from the same precinct.”
After City staff completed the ballot-verification process, Burleson handed the ballots to Scott Martin and Dan Pabich of Martin and Chapman Co., who then fed them into the tabulating machine, which counted the votes. Thereafter, Pabich printed out copies of the results, which Burleson distributed to those in attendance, and the results were displayed on the overhead screen.
Those results were broken down by precincts and showed the number of votes the candidates received within each. The city is divided into three voting precincts, which include: Precinct 1, the Signal Hill Park Community Center; Precinct 4, First Family Church; and Precinct 5, Willow Ridge.
Asked Thursday if she believes this election was handled properly, Harris affirmed that it indeed was fair. She said she and others were at the polls and Council Chamber to do what the League of Women Voters usually does. “They act as poll watchers just to ensure that the ballots are being handled according to Election Law,” Harris said. “From what I saw and what was reported from poll watchers, the poll workers did a good job. There were only a couple of incidents where I thought Election Law was being interpreted loosely, but I challenged the interpretation, and, in the end, my interpretation was accepted.”
Harris said that, in a conversation with Burleson prior to Election Day, she had discussed with her how it would be inappropriate for Pacheco, an elected official whose name is on the ballot, to participate in the handling of the ballots, and that Burleson agreed with her. However, according to Harris, Pacheco was indeed part of the canvassing board that was verifying ballots on Election Night. Harris said she then pointed out to Burleson that the use of Pacheco for that task is illegal, according to Election Code 15205 and that, after Burleson consulted City Attorney Dave Aleshire, she agreed with Harris and acted accordingly. “I believe in good, open government,” said Harris. “It’s important to follow not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. If the letter of the law is interpreted loosely, that makes us, the citizenry, distrustful of government. It’s important for the citizenry to trust our government so the government can work effectively.”
Given the opportunity Thursday to respond to Harris’s statements regarding the ballot-counting procedures, Burleson said it is indeed correct that a city employee is not allowed to handle ballots. However, she noted, a city clerk is an elected official, rather than a city employee, and one of the jobs of a city clerk is to conduct an election. Burleson said she had indeed consulted Aleshire and they agreed that Pacheco would not serve as the “election official.” “Given the issue at hand, we agreed that the city clerk would not be the election official that night,” Burleson said. “She was an observer just like Simmons, Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Nava. She did not touch a ballot.”
Though Hansen was not present during the election-results announcements Tuesday, in attendance were all four of the other Council members: Forester, Mike Noll, Ellen Ward, and Mayor Ed Wilson. After the results were given, Noll had passionate words about this year’s campaign. “This one is a very nasty one, as far as it goes to lies and deception,” he said. “Bits and pieces were taken out of context, so you don’t really have the real answers. I’m very disappointed in the way it was run. I think, in a campaign, you have to sell yourself and improve on what the Council has done so far.” Noll said he can appreciate a candidate who is willing and able to contribute positively to an existing Council, but he is disappointed by challengers who participate in a vitriolic campaign to win an election. “When you have to tear down a city, tear down a city manager… to make yourself known, that really upsets me,” he said.
Forester seemed to share Noll’s sentiment. “I have never been in a campaign that’s outright misinformation that could be construed as outright lies promulgated by an opponent,” Forester said.
After the election results had been announced and attendees were streaming out of Council Chambers, Simmons reflected on the months that had led up to Election Day. “I think the campaign was a success,” he said. “We were able to communicate with the residents on YourSignalHillVoice.com, and, as the result of our campaign, the residents are now informed about many of the inner workings of our city, and I believe, through transparency, we’ll benefit from stronger fiscal decisions in the future.”
After the Council meeting Wednesday night, Hansen released a statement about the election results. “I feel very pleased and humbled that so many individuals supported me throughout the election and that the residents continue to choose me as their representative,” she said. “As far as my thoughts about the campaign, my belief is this– negative campaigns lead to negative results.”