The Election Commission's decision to open up Election Director John Arntz's job to public competition drew sharp complaints locally and stoked the Fox News outrage machine. It may loom larger the next time we need to run a free and fair election. Graphic by Chuqin Jiang

Every so often, San Francisco hands a flawless script to the nation’s right-wing blowhards and fulminating keyboard warriors, pins a “kick me” sign to its posterior, and assumes the position. We can’t help it. 

And you know what? We do a damn fine job of that. We can’t help it. 

The latest flawless San Francisco script came neatly delivered on Nov. 21, when news broke that the city’s Election Commission had declined to preemptively re-up long-serving elections director John Arntz, and instead moved to open up a competitive process for the job, which he was invited to participate in. 

The career travails of a 57-year-old San Francisco bureaucrat do not, in and of themselves, seem like fodder for national news, let alone national outrage. Google “John Arntz” on Nov. 20 and all you’d find were daily updates on the tally for San Francisco’s fourth and final election of 2022. 

On Nov. 21, that changed. And that’s, in large part, because of the manner in which Arntz was informed that he’d be required to toss his hat in the ring, like everyone else, for the job he’s held since 2002. 

“Our decision wasn’t about your performance but, after 20 years, we wanted to take action on the City’s racial equity plan and give people an opportunity to compete for a leadership position,” reads an email sent from commission president Chris Jerdonek to Arntz.

Commissioner Cynthia Dai also told Mission Local that this decision was not performance-based, and conceded that San Francisco has run free and fair elections (and lots of them) for 20 years. Rather, she said it was time to open up the election director position to a more diverse field; San Francisco, she continued, could not make progress on its diversity goals without opening up top positions. 

And Commissioner Robin Stone praised Arntz to the heavens in a memo she wrote him, but confirmed that her decision to not preemptively renew his term and open up a competitive process for his job “reflects a continued commitment to advance institutional DEIBJ” — that is, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice.

All of these are great things. The city should not give short shrift to any of them. But — here’s the thing — it shouldn’t disregard performance and competence, either. 

And it does. Rampantly. Across the board. 

John Arntz in 2018. Photo by Mallory Newman.

San Francisco is a challenging city for an elections director. We have a low barrier to the ballot: Voters here know that the proposition that comes after “Z” is “AA.” And we have a low barrier to voting: Non-citizens vote in school board elections, materials are published in a plethora of languages, ballots are mailed to every voter’s home, and 501 polling places are set up and staffed in a 47-square-mile city. Ranked-choice voting requires specialized software and all manner of messaging to the public.  

The most recent election included nomination papers for 48 candidates, paperwork for 14 ballot measures, 247 ballot arguments, 18,000 voter record updates, multilingual presentations at 250 neighborhood events, 4,000 public inquiries; and the creation of a mailman’s nightmare of a 256-page voter information pamphlet. A measure was stricken from the ballot. So was a candidate. It was complicated. 

It came off without a hitch. They always do.

That wasn’t the case before Arntz’s tenure; San Francisco burned through five elections directors in five years; the department was distrusted and insolvent. Now, while disturbing swaths of the United States espouse baseless conspiracy theories about vote-counting, San Franciscans can have faith in the integrity of the process. And now, while disturbing swaths of the United States are taking steps to make voting onerous and difficult, San Francisco makes it ridiculously easy. 

All 12 of Arntz’s department managers wrote to the elections commission, pleading with them to renew his contract. Far from being coerced, they did so without his knowledge. So, on top of running free, fair and functional elections for two decades, Arntz has won the respect and loyalty of his staff. The Election Commission’s move elicited shock and anger from every corner of San Francisco’s non-crank political firmament. 

So, that’s why this rankles. Yes, Fox News can go on about how this city has “spun the wheel of woke insanity” and, God help us, we handed them the kindling and poured the kerosene over our own heads. But the real incendiary element here was Elections Commissioner after Elections Commissioner stating that Arntz’s performance wasn’t factored into their decision — as if that was good and defensible and intelligent. 

It’s not. Try to think of San Francisco departments, and department heads that excel at their mission and aren’t mired in scandal. Try hard. It’s not easy. Once you get beyond the Department of Elections and the library, it’s slim pickings. 

So, again, it rankles to review the dysfunction, ineptitude and outright corruption marking San Francisco city government; the farcical “nationwide searches” resulting in the hiring of favored candidates from within the building; the patently unqualified men and women turning their departments’ core missions into a bit of cruelly Orwellian doublespeak, and realize that “performance” was — proudly — not a factor in the decision to retain or risk losing one of this city’s rare high-performing department heads atop one of our few functional departments.

Also, yes, the Elections Commission has put the city in a legally tenuous place. 

Elections boss John Arntz shows his cards tonight at City Hall. Early results are in. Photo by Annika Hom, November, 2020.

Can the Elections Commission say that it wants the best possible person atop the Elections Department? Yes. Can it say that it wants John Arntz to jump through hoops he would not have to jump through if he looked differently than he does? 

Not really. 

“Certainly if they called a competent lawyer before doing this, they would be in a better position,” said University of California, Berkeley, law professor Joan Williams. “Can you deny someone a job based on race? No, you cannot. So I would say this was not handled in the best way possible.” 

No, it was not. 

Williams’ Berkeley colleague, David Oppenheimer, is the director of the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law. He says that the Elections Commission potentially cocked up, even if you don’t consider the gender and racial element. In many positions, both in the private and the public sector, there is a “presumption of renewal” for employees who are performing at a high level. And the Elections Commission, in both 2020 and 2021, commended Arntz for his excellent work. 

But don’t forget: There is the racial and gender element. There is a different standard in considering race and gender in hiring decisions than in retention decisions like this one, Oppenheimer says. All in all, if this matter is litigated, he feels the city has an uphill battle: “It’s going to be difficult for the city to persuade a court that this is a legitimate decision on due process and discrimination,” Oppenheimer says. “I think the city has a difficult case to defend.” 

So, all of that is bad. It’s bad that members of our Elections Commission felt they could say and do what they did without anyone batting an eye. It would seem they didn’t consult with a “competent lawyer” of any sort, let alone the City Attorney’s office. 

When we spoke to Arntz, he was finishing up the final touches on the Nov. 8 election at a warehouse. He did not have a public statement on whether he’d participate in the open process the Elections Commission has declared necessary to name our next director. He did not want to talk about whether he’d take legal action. He seemed to really want to get back to his job of 20 years, and was more than a bit embarrassed about becoming the story here. 

But that’s what’s happened. In 2024, San Franciscans will be voting on half the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, the DA, the mayor, God knows how many ballot propositions, and the President of the United States of America. 

The thought of such an election being run on some janky system and overseen by a rando ought to be horrifying. San Francisco is a city with 99 problems — and, now, we’ve gone and decided to make it 100.

Apparently, we couldn’t help it.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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24 Comments

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  1. Totally agree with you. How is a manager supposed to interpret this action unless your boss is Elon (and he can make janky decisions all day long). Shame on the election commission. Will follow up w/ my supe.

  2. The Elections Commissions representatives who voted to deny renewal to Arntz based on his race and gender were representatives from the City Attorney, the DA and the Public Defender. The City Attorney!!!

  3. This article is welcome and not surprising to San Franciscans. Yesterday, I met a new city employee (midlevel manager) who stretched the family savings to lease an apartment in San Francisco. I asked her why she didn’t didn’t get a place in Oakland that is actually closer to work than the outer Sunset. She said city policy requires her to live in SF. I told her that her department head has never lived in SF. She was amazed. Could the Mayor, BoS, Commissioners, or whoever enforces SF rules try to be fair and consistent?

    1. I am a city employee. I have never heard of such a requirement. It’s possible niche departments and positions have worked that into the employment terms, but much more likely she received bad info. Of course, that wouldn’t be much better from a “how the city treats it’s people” perspective, but she should consult with her union rep and push back if she’s truly unhappy with this.

    2. There is no city policy to live SF. The only residency requirement is to live in California. She has been given incorrect information.

  4. You are absolutely, unequivocally right. This is the functional equivalent of a circular firing squad. We now look stupid (again – see SF Board of Education), not only to those on the right but also to moderates like me who support DEI but want it accomplished thoughtfully. At times like this I’m embarrassed to be a San Franciscan.

    And if he is deficient in some way and deserves to be fired, then fire him rather than playing stupid passive-aggressive games.

  5. If you have lived here a long time, you will remember boxes of ballots floating in the Bay before Arntz took on the arduous task of righting our elections. You should be giving him civic awards, a huge raise & our heartfelt gratitude! I am embarrassed by your decision and hope you reverse it quickly.

  6. Seriously, what do you expect from the Elections Commission that just re-aligned the city districts to shift the power in such an obvious manner that no one is going to forget it anytime soon. If you took part in the farce you will never forget the way those commissioners that are now throwing out a seasoned professional our for a novice behaved.

    No one seriously believes that the country or the world looks kindly at the San Francisco we now live in. If we started to perform on some level of competence someone would throw a wrench into the works to wreck it while the powers that be stand idly by, engrossed in choosing the next color for Muni bus stops, or the next statue to remove or the next street to rename. All more important than running a functioning city.

    1. So how does this play out? If the bloc that ousted Arntz can be considered “progressive,” PD and BofS appointees, then they were the same Election Commissioners who appointed the balance of BofS gerrymandering power that screwed progressives.

      Why would such a bloc punish Arntz for the consequences of their discretionary appointments?

      It seems to be coming clear that whenever progressives have the chance, they take steps to diminish their political power while augmenting the “moderates” who we know are conservatives.

      Are those tumbrils I hear approaching?

    2. But aren’t the alliances that were negatively impacted by realignment the ones who voted for “removal?” DA/PD/Board/(lessor extent)City attorney?

    3. The elections commission is not in charge of redistricting. You can Google San Francisco redistricting commission to see who was on it and who they were appointed by.

  7. 1. Arntz has been less than honest with the Election Commission. He has been less than forthright about his vendor dealings and that is not a good quality for a head of an elections department. He is insubordinate to the stated policies of SF County. 2. Artnz has been holding his position for far too long. Certainly it is not his fault he is an elder white male Republican but it does defy logic that SF would not want to consider opening the position. 3. Those rallying around him ( his staff and those seeking not to offend him ) are conflicted and self serving. Many politicos seek to retain favor with tech super power ( Microsoft / Silicon donors etc ) as the party cash register. Others may believe they ” owe him one ” for their continued political victories. 3. Those who give Artz sole credit for solving the ” ballots in the bay ” issue are unlikely to have a complete understanding of the inner workings of the DOE Director’s position. They also fail to acknowledge the work over the last 20 years of the Election Commission. 4. Artnz has single handedly delayed the national security upgrade regarding modern voting technology for SF. His overly close relationship with one particular salesman ( Steve Bennett ) has caused many to be be suspect of dirty dealings. This is not a good look for an election dept. head. Those casting aspersions at the Election Commission have little understanding of the intense work that has occurred by the Commission for more then a decade. https://lhc.ca.gov/report/california-election-infrastructure-making-good-system-better

    1. It appears that you know far more than I do about the inner working of the Elections Commission and the DOE.

      All I can say in response to your comment is that if true I can’t wait for the federal indictments.

    2. Doesn’t matter, the national story is how foolishly woke the four commissioners are. DailyMail is all over it (“San Francisco’s white election director is FIRED…”) and both equity and open-source will have to take a backseat to a clean-up on aisle 5.

      And btw, ‘name is Arntz. John Arntz. Ya gonna remember that mista or ya gonna get yourself anotha game. Ya follow?’

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Lh8dcvj-0NA

      https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11463935/San-Francisco-removes-white-election-director-racial-equity-plan.html

    3. So the obvious question to ask: Why has this laundry list of grievances not been fielded in justifying the decision to move forward in a different direction? Could it be you’re simply throwing out a red herring?

    4. Arntz is not a republican. He has been a registered democrat and also NPP. Dominion voting is the ONLY vendor that makes SOS-approved equipment that can handle the legally required needs of SF elections (ranked choice voting, language access, etc).

    5. Interesting points. What system do other counties in California use that we should start using? Better said, what state approved system could Arntz, and yes that’s how you spell his name, have used? It is also very interesting to know how involved you are in San Francisco election commission meeting given that you aren’t a SF voter. Not even a neighboring county voter. Perhaps you should start there with making changes. Also since you haven’t read correctly, open source or voting systems was not noted by any of the commission members for the reason not to renew Arntz contract. I’d actually be curious if any of the members of the commission or yourself can even note the requirements for a voting system. It’s more than software, trust me. For those concerned about the system used by San Francisco and many many other jurisdictions, should it be safe to assume you don’t believe in those results.

  8. What a joke. Absolutely DEIBJ is a laudable goal however one need not look too far to see that other city commissions such as the Building Inspection Commission and Planning Commission apparently “didn’t get the DEIBJ memo.” It is decisions such as the one the Elections Commission made that destroy what little trust we citizens have left in city government. I’ve witnessed “farcical nationwide searches” where the hiring was predetermined to go to the favored candidate from “within the building.” I don’t hold out hope that the Elections Commission will reverse its decision however. I do wish that Director Arntz will litigate. It’s pretty much one of the only ways to be heard in this city. It’s amazing what one can uncover in depositions and subpoenaed communications. I guess we may go back to ballot boxes floating in the bay. again. Let’s take one of the only non-corrupt highly functioning city departments and tamper with it. SanFrancisco 2022. Nothing ever seems to change around here.

    1. As a 59 year old San Francisco native and a former employee at the Dept of Elections, the dismissing of John Arntz is the last straw. Our local government, especially under current Mayor Breed is corrupt and incompetent in every City department except for Elections. Our City voters need to look at the policies of City Hall that are eradicating people of color from our City to begin with. We’ve waited until the Black population percentage is in the low single digits and now seem to be awarding them positions disproportionate to their numbers.

  9. To be fair, Arntz was that rando 20 yr ago, the deputy director who got elevated to acting director and hired on permanently. He was totally an accidental director of elections.

    That said, odds are the Commission would not pick the next qualified candidate in line in the department, rather install a political hack like Tammy Haygood.

    Perhaps all of these positions should be filled by randos, picked by lot from amongst the citizenry. They’d be hard pressed to fuck it up as royally as those selected by the political class.