Ken Garcia: S.F. elections chief keeps name out of headlines — a good thing

If John Arntz had voted for his choice, chances are he’d wish that I did this column sometime after next week’s election.

That way I couldn’t jinx San Francisco’s elections chief by doing a story about him — kind of like all those athletes whose careers tanked after they were featured on a Sports Illustrated cover.

His initial feeling? “I just went cold,” he said in response to my question — not the first public official who has had that reaction to my calls. “Those are the ones that make you shiver.”

But if anyone deserves the attention, it’s Arntz, that rare city department head who does his job without seeking any publicity. Arntz has quietly righted arguably the most troubled ship in San Francisco over the past two decades. It’s been a rather remarkable turn of events for the 41-year-old Arntz, who was out of money and out of a job when he signed up to be a temporary worker in the Elections Department during the 1999 mayoral runoff.

He ended up staying for a year before deciding totake a construction job in Alaska — only to receive a plea from then-department Director Tammy Haygood two years later asking him to come back. And from that time on it was less like working as a middle manager and more like being the occupant of the last car on a dizzying roller coaster ride.

For those in need of a little memory jog on the colorful cast of characters then occupying city office, Haygood was a Willie Brown appointee who had no experience running elections — just the kind of credentials that made November a particularly wild time on the calendar. City voters, knowing Brown’s penchant for cronyism, created an elections commission to oversee the department, and after discovering that Haygood had run up a $5 million deficit during her short tenure, the panel fired her. The move triggered a long legal circus in which Haygood battled to keep her job and tried to get The City to pay her off while the department went into a deep-freeze.

Enter Arntz, who had become the department’s go-to guy. He was named as the interim director of the beleaguered agency — a position that became permanent a year later after officials somehow talked him into taking it. Arntz wisely wavered — the Elections Department had had six directors in six years, which must be a record even by San Francisco's generally shoddy oversight standards.

“It was a tense situation,” he said. “There were lawsuits looming, the office was decimated and I thought, do I really want to walk into that situation. But I didn’t want to abandon this place because the people who were here worked really hard and they never got a fair shake.”

Arntz took over three and a half years ago and since that time the notoriously troubled department has worked with hardly a glitz. The agency worked flawlessly during the recall, the special election and even managed to stave off the divisive politics surrounding the advent of instant voter runoff — a system that stumbled when the vendor couldn’t deliver the software for two years.

All told there have been nine elections conducted under Arntz and they’ve all earned an adjective that was rarely uttered in the previous 15 years before him — uneventful. They’ve even bordered on coolly efficient — a stunning turnaround from the days of wrong voter booklets being delivered, when absentee ballots went unaccounted for or when, in 2001, the lids mysteriously blew off numerous ballot boxes and thousands of them were swept into San Francisco Bay.

Arntz said the department wasn’t jinxed as much as neglected.

“It’s just that the structure wasn’t very strong,’’ he said. “So when I got here it was open to being reinvented.’’

Arnzt set out to be a lawyer — he attended a law school in South Dakota before moving to California — but then upon reflection determined that he would make a lousy attorney. But his training must have helped him steer through some difficult cases, because his department has managed to avoid the muddy mosh pit of San Francisco politics.

“You have to be mindful of the politics, but the thing that’s been most helpful is that I just focus on the work,’’ he said. “Everything that’s done here is based on the rules, not politics or personalities, and that’s the way it should be.’’

The department has been completely revamped since he took over and now runs on a strict calendar. Imagine — an Elections Department that is mindful of the calendar.

So if anyone deserves a vote of confidence it’s Arntz, who has removed one annual story off the front pages. For that, he deserves his own.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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