RIVERBANK — Former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño and supporters are contesting the bill for the partial recount in the November mayoral election.
The Stanislaus County election office charged her campaign $10,217 for the Dec. 10 recount, or about $2,000 an hour. Madueño's campaign stopped the recount after five hours because the results were not changing. She lost to Richard O'Brien by 53 votes.
Sacramento attorney Amber Maltbie, representing Madueño, said the registrar of voters office gave them written statements that the recount would cost $300 an hour, with a $2,400 deposit required each day of the recount.
After the count was cut short the first day, Madueño's campaign expected that part of the $2,400 deposit from Riverbank Councilwoman Dotty Nygard would be refunded. But they received a county invoice Jan. 25 stating the total cost was $10,217.28.
A $7,817 balance was owed, the letter said.
Maltbie said the figure was more than three times higher than the estimate given twice to Madueño's campaign.
The cost for the Dec. 10 count was more than five times the amount for the Measure S recount in 2008, which cost $1,875, and likely sets a precedent for what candidates will be charged for recounts in Stanislaus County.
Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan said Madueño was billed for actual costs of planning and conducting the recount and that it's appropriate to recover the costs for taxpayers.
$20 per ballot?
Maltbie countered that little more than 6,000 votes were cast in the Riverbank election and just 500 votes from one precinct were recounted by machine, meaning the process cost about $20 per ballot. That's about 10 times the highest charges assessed by counties in the statewide Proposition 29 recount last year, she said.
The attorney has furnished information to the secretary of state's office and asked to negotiate the balance with Stanislaus County's legal staff. She received an itemized invoice on the costs this week.
"Three months after the recount, we are still trying to get to the bottom of it," said Maltbie of Nossaman LLP. "If it's permissible to be so incorrect with an initial estimate and the requester is blindsided later, people are not going to exercise their right to a recount. It will have a chilling effect."
Lundrigan said her office counted by hand votes in the Riverbank and Patterson elections because the races were so close. She said the Madueño camp asked for the recount on the last possible day and was told it would be charged actual costs.
She said one reason for the higher costs was that the Madueño campaign wanted a look at all provisional ballot envelopes. Also, the presidential election increased the number of ballots to be sorted, and prep time was needed for the vote-counting system, Lundrigan said.
"It's hard to estimate the costs," she said. "If a group came in and asked for recount in a specific area or a physical recount of only the ballots, it would be different. They wanted us to open the entire election."
Dennis McCord, a Patterson council hopeful who lost by eight votes in November, said the elections office gave him conflicting estimates when he asked about a recount. He said the initial quote was $1,200, but Lundrigan later advised him it could cost $2,500 a day over five days, or $12,500.
"It doesn't make sense that they don't know what it cost to recount 5,100 votes," he said. "I would say $12,500 is a lot of money for a city council race. That kind of money could do a lot of good in the community."
Maltbie cited recounts in California that cost less, including a rerun of a Tulare County supervisor race costing $4,370 in 2010 and the city of Cathedral's mayoral recount last year that was terminated after one day, costing $2,800.
12 people, 3 days of preparation
In a Jan. 29 letter explaining the costs, Lundrigan's office said 12 employees worked Dec. 4-6 preparing to count the Riverbank ballots and then worked Dec. 10.
The costs included staff time for planning, preparing notices, communicating with interested parties, setting media policy, examining materials, evaluating legal issues, gathering and reviewing materials, conducting research of materials, and setting up and breaking down the facility.
The extensive list included other items, from supervising the recount board to accuracy testing to computer system management.
Cost accounting wasn't so thorough for recounting Measure S, a countywide road tax that almost received two-thirds approval in 2008. The Yes on S Committee made a one-day deposit of $2,500 and stopped the hand count at midday after a check of certain precincts confirmed results, said Bill Bassitt, the committee's treasurer.
The county charged $1,875 and refunded the rest.
Lundrigan said it was the first recount during her time in office, with the cost based on a flier inherited from her predecessor. After the 2008 recount, she said, she decided to research the true costs allowed by the state Election Code.
Jim DeMartini, a county supervisor and Republican party leader, said more than $10,000 for a recount seems high, "but Lee is going to have to justify those charges. She is not supposed to charge any more than what the service costs."
He said he was confident that Lundrigan's tallies of the Riverbank and Patterson elections were accurate, making a recount a waste of time.
San Joaquin County's recount costs are $1,200 per day. A recount for a Stockton school board race four years ago was $6,000, said Austin Erdman, registrar of voters. He said the large number of mail ballots received has to be sorted by precinct, pushing a full recount to four to five days.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state said county election officials establish the costs for recounts, which vary by county because of labor costs and other factors. The costs for recounting Proposition 29 last year ranged from 29 cents per ballot in Orange County to $2.24 per vote in Los Angeles County.
Lundrigan said there are other options for candidates, such as observing the election-night count or watching the canvas of votes required to certify an election. But the Madueño team is concerned that costs are going to discourage people from exercising their right to a second count.
"Stanislaus County is not a place where ordinary folks will be asking for a recount," Maltbie said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.