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Mark Church Defends Elections Office Management

Read the article published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on March 7, 2022.

A number of allegations have been lobbed at leadership of San Mateo County’s Office of Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder and Elections ranging from poor office morale and record mismanagement from a candidate running to lead the department.

David Pollack, who is running to unseat incumbent Mark Church as the county’s assessor-county clerk-recorder and chief elections officer, said he has come forward with concerns after speaking with department employees and submitting his own records requests with the county.

“I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve raised questions through the PRA requests on these different subjects that it’s like how dare, I say, poke the bear,” Pollack, the founder and director of the tech nonprofit FirstAID Labs, said.

Church has been at the helm of the department since being elected to the role in 2011 and is currently running for reelection. Before taking on that position, he served as a county supervisor beginning in 2001 after serving as a Millbrae councilmember and mayor.

Working through the allegations, Church categorically refuted the claims, writing in a statement that “there is absolutely no merit to any of the complaints raised” and calling the accuser misinformed.

“Our department is a model of innovation, efficiency and inclusion and is recognized as a leader throughout the state and the nation,” Church wrote. “Our fundamental core values are reflected in our department motto, ‘People First.’ We are here to serve the people, and we exemplify good government, providing efficient and innovative services.”

Low morale, mismanagement

Pollack claims employees reached out to him after announcing his campaign to report being in a toxic work environment made even worse by the installation of 90 surveillance cameras in all places an employee may venture but not in executive offices.

“Everyone is really anxious there. They could do something that gives current employees the ... coverage they need to get the job done,” Pollack said.

While recognizing the importance of having strong security in place to guard the county’s election system, Pollack claims the department contracted with an inexperienced vendor to install the cameras for more than $150,000 without consulting cybersecurity experts.

He also said union members told him they were not informed ahead of time that cameras were to be installed that prompted them to file a cease and desist letter with the Public Employee Labor Board to which they claim they never received a response.

Upon his own investigation, he found that the department has no documented protocol in place for how leadership intends to manage the camera system. Pollack also shared concerns that, aside from Church and Assistant Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Jim Irizarry, the department has not had an experienced employee heading the election division with the role remaining vacant since 2017.

“They need the office to be working on all cylinders, to have professionals in place, to have a good relationship with the front-line employees who are running elections,” Pollack said.

With June elections on the horizon, Pollack also raised concerns that the department has moved too slowly to digitize historical documents, causing boxes to either build up in the office and take up vital space or to be shipped out for storage in a third-party facility in San Jose.

Pollack said the department has had 10 years to digitize its stash of documents after an expert specifically warned them to do so in 2013. He said the department has not made much progress as of late, according to his sources, causing officials to play “catch-up” rather than focus on the future.

Church pushes back

On office morale, Church said employees are “motivated” and “engaged,” calling the allegations of a toxic workplace “misguided and unfounded.” He went on to say that communication with staff is occurring constantly and that employees played a direct role in the development of the department’s Strategic Plan.

As for the installation of surveillance cameras through the county’s Elections Division on Tower Road, Church said they’re meant to serve a dual purpose — to ensure security of the county’s entire elections system which is held within the division and to keep staff safe amid increased hostility toward election staff and officials.

Following a Jan. 26 meeting between U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray and the nation’s secretaries of state and registrars of voters, Church said election officials were directed to take immediate action to protect employees and facilities from attacks and to increase security.

“The sanctity of the electoral process and the safety and security of our employees outweigh the expectation of any right to privacy while working in an election facility,” the statement read.

Church also pushed back on allegations the office has been slow to digitize and preserve hundreds of thousands of historic documents dating back to 1846. Since his first term, Church said he had worked on a project proposal to complete the work but was unable to gain support from the County Manager’s Office because of the hefty price tag that came with it. That changed this past October when supervisors granted the necessary budget.

Document digitization occurs daily, Church said. But to make electronic copies of all the documents stored by his office, including recorded land translations, birth, death and marriage certificates, the assessment roll of more than 220,000 parcels and election information of more than 440,000 residents across 70 jurisdictions, the department faces about 20 years of work to complete the project.

Demanding changes

But Pollack contends that his allegations are valid. Instead of raising his concerns as a campaign effort, he said he would like to see officials make adjustments before the June election.

Those changes include improving the department’s social media presence and accessibility to underserved communities, better communicating with employees, putting greater effort into document digitization and adopting a clear policy around the use and data storage of camera footage.

“I’m not saying they need to cease and desist,” Pollack said. “But explain yourself and explain to your employees why they’re doing the things that they’re doing to create a better state in the workplace.”

Article published in San Mateo Daily Journal on March 7, 2022.


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