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Boro councilmen grill city Board of Elections

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Sarina Trangle

A profound political bent should be a prerequisite for employment with the city Board of Elections, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) said.

After city investigators released a 72-page report detailing nepotism, wastefulness and incompetency at the BOE, good government groups reiterated their calls to transform the board into a non-partisan entity with support from the city Department of Investigation.

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters testified at a Council hearing last week that except for a few BOE positions involved with setting policy, the bulk of jobs at the agency do not entail work where party affiliation would be relevant.

“I’m not sure there’s a Republican or Democratic way to do data entry,” Peters said.

Lancman, however, vouched for the board’s current configuration, where staff are hired equally from the two major political parties. The agency is overseen by 10 commissioners comprising one Republican and one Democrat from each borough.

“It’s not enough that they be a Democrat or a Republican, but that they be partisan, that they be committed to their side and they zealously guard their side’s prerogatives and interests,” Lancman said. “The challenge as I see it is to try to find a way, an appropriate level of partisanship, where the sides are watching each other with competency.”

Lancman, a former assemblyman, said staffing the BOE with party picks ensures that both Democrats and Republicans have a watchdog at every stage of organizing an election.

Council members, BOE executives and investigators did not seem to agree on much at the Feb. 28 hearing in Manhattan except that an intolerable degree of incompetency had permeated the board.

The Oversight and Investigations and Governmental Operations committees organized a joint hearing on the DOI report released just before 2014. The document offered more than 40 recommendations for improving the board, from standardizing poll worker training to considering purchasing an index of deceased people from the Social Security administration to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.

Peters said investigators concluded that county political committees maintain an outsize role in personnel decisions and that the BOE may need to move to a non-partisan model to effectively curtail county bosses’ sway in staffing.

He noted that the board does not generally post openings publicly, solicit applications or follow a standard procedure for screening prospective employees.

Although election law gives county committees the opportunity to recommend commissioners to the Council, it does not establish roles for the parties in hiring other BOE staff.

The board’s current hiring practices have led to roughly 10 percent of its staff consisting of relatives, according to Peters.

BOE Executive Director Mike Ryan said he oversees a “ministerial agency” that implements state election law. He said many DOI recommendations challenged procedures enshrined in the state constitution.

Several Council members, including Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), said the city should push for Albany to revise the state constitution’s governance of the BOE. Any such revisions would require that the state Legislature twice approve the amendments before voters could pass reform via a referendum.

“The commissioners give very wide latitude to the preferences of the county leaders and the county leaders are, in fact, appointing people in some cases … who are incompetent, who are not qualified,” Ulrich said.

But Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at Citizens Union, a nonpartisan good government group, said interpretation of the law may be functioning as a crutch for patronage jobs.

Camarda said the law was not a mandate that the BOE must hire one Democrat and one Republican for every position, but a demand for “equal representation” and balance.

He noted that Citizens Union helped the BOE create an online recruitment tool designed to fill Election Day jobs that must go to a Republican or Democrat.

“I am surprised the board is reluctant to post their positions online,” he said. “If they’re doing it for those positions … I don’t understand why they wouldn’t do that for every position.”

Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan), who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, urged the BOE to report back on the feasibility of a handful of suggestions.

Ryan agreed to produce a corrective action plan detailing how the BOE planned to raise concerns in the report within a month,

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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