Embattled registrar fights back

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With more than two years left in his term, head elections
official John Hodges is mounting a full-blown campaign to keep his
job.
Hollister – With more than two years left in his term, head elections official John Hodges is mounting a full-blown campaign to keep his job.

As the Board of Supervisors pursues state legislation to strip Hodges of his authority over elections, the longtime county clerk is fighting back. After a string of missteps by his office, Supervisors want to remove his registrar of voters responsibilities and appoint their own head elections official.

To change Hodges’ registrar position from an elected job to one that’s board-appointed, state lawmakers must pass legislation.

Hodges has started what he’s calling a campaign to keep his job. He plans to collect residents’ signatures on a petition to show that San Benito County voters want him in charge of elections. This week, Hodges blasted supervisors during a board meeting and questioned why they made their decision behind closed doors.

“That’s just trying to take away the voters’ opportunity to vote on the county registrar,” said Hodges, who added the Republican Central Committee has offered to help his efforts.

Hodges hopes to convince the county’s two state legislators – State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, and Assemblyman Simon Salinas, D-Salinas – that supporting such a change would thwart the public’s will. Hodges plans to give a copy of his finished petition to both men, he said.

Salinas on Wednesday said without support from both he and Denham, enacting the requested legislation would be “very difficult.” Both lawmakers said they want to meet to discuss the board’s request and whether it would benefit the county. Salinas emphasized they can’t take action until at least January, when the Legislature’s next session begins.

If Hodges follows through and submits a petition signed by supportive residents, Salinas said, “Certainly that will be information we’re going to have to look at.”

Denham on Wednesday said it’s too premature to take a stance because he hadn’t received the county’s request. He planned to meet with Hodges today and Salinas some time after that.

From what he’s heard so far, Denham said the request sounds “more political than policy” oriented.

“I think if it’s an effort to streamline government, to reduce costs for the county, to improve the elections department, those would be factors that would need to be considered,” Denham said.

Supervisors say they would rather hire someone with more expertise to handle elections. Although Hodges has 20 years of experience as the registrar, supervisors have pointed to the office’s problems with the March election as reasoning for stripping his power.

First, elections officials gave improper advice to voters returning ballots to the office. Then the federal government sued his office in May for lacking Spanish-language resources for the March election. Most recently, an office staffer lost an e-mail from state investigators requesting documents needed to finish a probe of the District 5 supervisor’s race.

An elected official, Hodges also holds titles of auditor, recorder and clerk – all of which he would retain if the board succeeds in removing his elections authority.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, an infuriated Hodges spoke during public comment and questioned several recent decisions regarding his office.

For one, he criticized the board’s approval – behind closed doors – of the resolution to request the legislators’ support. He thinks that discussion should have been held in a public forum, he said.

County Counsel Karen Forcum, though, said the agenda item was appropriate for closed session because of its potential for spurring litigation.

“I hate to say this,” Forcum told Hodges during the meeting, “but your office has been the subject of litigation in the past in regards to elections matters, so it was deemed an appropriate matter for discussion (in closed session).”

Hodges didn’t buy that explanation.

“Stripping the registrar of voter away from the county clerk? There’s no litigation in there,” Hodges said.

Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association and an expert on the state’s open meeting law, said Hodges may have a point. Forcum’s explanation wasn’t specific enough, he said.

“Whether the office is going to be exposed to litigation really has nothing to do with whether that position is going to be appointed or elected,” Ewert said.

Forcum didn’t immediately return a phone call to respond to Ewert’s comments.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Bob Cruz, who lost the District 5 race to Jaime De La Cruz by 10 votes, shot back at Hodges.

“He was plenty upset, right?” Cruz said. “And maybe he should be upset. Why doesn’t he talk to the Justice Department out of Washington on why he’s upset and why we’re spending so much money on his department?”

Hodges, though, described the board’s motives as “sour grapes” retaliation. He believes supervisors want his authority removed because he refused to support Cruz’s challenge of the District 5 results.

“They (supervisors) have done about everything out of the book to try to get me out of office, or make me stumble,” Hodges said.

Most recently, he pointed out the board’s decision Tuesday to delay the hiring of two contractors – requested by Hodges – for the upcoming November election.

One of those consultants is his son, Mike Hodges, who has been running the office’s computer systems during election seasons for the past 14 years. He was set to earn $15,000 for the November election.

But the board put off his contract’s approval, along with another $150,000 contract with a company that prints ballots. Prior to hiring them, supervisors wanted to consider a new ordinance that would require department heads to query at least three consultants for contracted services – meaning Hodges’ son could lose the job.

After the board Tuesday postponed the two resolutions, Hodges put the items right back on the agenda for the next meeting – Sept. 14. If the board doesn’t approve it then, he said, he’ll notify the Department of Justice that supervisors “are not cooperating” with the federal lawsuit requiring reform in the local elections office.

Supervisor Reb Monaco said Hodges, as an elected official, has every right to fight for his job as registrar.

“I can understand him being upset,” Monaco said.

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