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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.