RIVERBANK — Former Mayor Virginia Madueño's supporters said the Stanislaus County election office shouldn't charge them for staff salaries for the week before ballots were recounted in the November mayoral race.
Madueño is contesting an itemized bill showing that Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan charged almost $4,000 for her time spent on the December recount. A Madueño supporter who asked for the recount was billed $10,217 by Lundrigan's office for an effort that lasted 5½ hours before it was called off.
In addition to a required $2,400 deposit to start the Dec. 10 recount, county elections sent a bill six weeks later seeking payment of an extra $7,817, based on staff time to prepare for the tally.
According to the invoice, Lundrigan worked 30 hours preparing for and conducting the recount, at a rate of $131.42 per hour. Time sheets show a total of 108 hours worked by 11 other employees on Dec. 10 and the previous week.
Sacramento attorney Amber Maltbie, representing Madueño, said she has asked the county in writing to waive the staff salaries for the week before the recount and refund part of the $2,400 deposit. Her letter sought a response from the county by Monday. "If they knew they were going to bill that for the week prior to the recount, they should have been upfront about that so Virginia had the information to know whether to proceed or not proceed," Maltbie said. She added the time sheets don't tell what work was done.
Deputy County Counsel Deirdre McGrath said Friday the charges were fair. "I don't know what they are expecting us to do by April 1. It is something we are still looking at."
McGrath said Madueño's request to have all 11,000 provisional ballots available for the recount required more staff time to prepare. The election office maintains the Madueño team was told it would be billed extra if costs exceeded the $2,400 deposit.
The dispute simmers months after the partial recount made no difference in the outcome. Madueño lost to Richard O'Brien by 53 votes. About 500 of the 6,100-plus ballots cast in November were recounted; Madueño stopped the process when the results were not changing.
The Madueño campaign was charged more than five times the $1,875 cost in 2008 to recount Measure S, a countywide road-tax proposal, and far more than recounts held recently in cities and counties in California.
Lundrigan said Friday the second count for Measure S was a hand count of ballots that were readily available. Road-tax supporters stopped the count the first day. Lundrigan said the Riverbank recount was a machine tally requiring prep time for the equipment and Madueño's request went beyond a standard recount.
"One of the items they requested was the empty provisional ballot envelopes that was the largest aspect of preparation," Lundrigan said. "Because of the presidential election, there were 11,000 provisional ballots. We spent most of the day sorting them on a table to see which ones were from Riverbank."
Room for argument?
Lundrigan said election officials are supposed to recover costs of recounts for taxpayers based on state law. If the count changes the results, the candidate making the request pays nothing.
McGrath said there might be room for argument about the $3,942 billed for Lundrigan's time. "Staff time should be charged, but whether the registrar of voters should be included, perhaps or maybe not. The registrar works for the people."
Maltbie stressed that everything requested for the recount was taken from the Election Code. She said it's not unusual to pull provisional ballots for the process and the request "does not explain why $7,800 in staff time was billed for work done prior to the recount starting."
The differing costs county by county for a recount of last year's Proposition 29 has brought calls for more standardized recount charges in California.
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of the Election Law Blog, has written that some costs set by county election officials appear arbitrary. In an email, Hasen said the costs of recounts impose burdens on local election officials. "On the other hand, as a way of ensuring that votes are fairly and accurately counted, the cost of recounts cannot be out of reach for someone with a legitimate question about how the election was run," he said.
Hasen said it makes sense for the Legislature "to impose a solution to balance the two issues."
Lundrigan said the costs for future recounts in Stanislaus County will depend on particulars of the candidate's request. She said her office will do more to explain costs.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.