January 8, 2009 - Activist candidate takes on county
Paper: Orange County Register, The ( Santa Ana, CA)
Title: Activist candidate takes on county
Date: January 8, 2009
Author: TERI SFORZA ; The Orange County Register
The man who took the Orange County Registrar of Voters to small claims court – challenging how it computes charges for candidates' statements – has scored a victory.
William Denis Fitzgerald – who once dubbed Anaheim's Curt Pringle "a silver-tongued devil" when challenging Pringle for the mayor's seat, and then took on the "Disney candidate" for the Anaheim Union High School District board – was recently awarded $543.62 from the county, plus $60 in court costs.
The candidate statements that go into voter guides are not provided free; candidates pay for them. Fitzgerald paid $1,617 up front for his statement in the February election; lost; and a few weeks after the election, was billed for another $642.
He asked the registrar for an accounting of these costs. And there the conflict began.
Fitzgerald, an activist with Anaheim HOME (Homeowners Maintaining their Environment), peppered the registrar with 15 letters under the California Public Records Act, trying to understand how the registrar arrived at its figures. The county "delayed, avoided, obstructed and then sent copies of hundreds of unrelated documents and other 'fluff,' " charging him 15 cents per page, "and never delivering the documents requested," he said in court papers.
In October, Fitzgerald sued the county in small claims court. Shortly thereafter, the registrar refunded him $98.
Still, Fitzgerald pressed on. "The judge asked me how much I wanted, and I said it wasn't a matter of money – I wanted them to stop the false accounting," Fitzgerald said.
High upfront costs, he fears, prevent people from running for office. In the June election, one Superior Court judge candidate paid more than $41,000 up front for the candidate's statement, while an Orange County supervisor candidate paid more than $10,000 and other candidates paid between $1,550 and $6,000.
Candidates are told that these charges are just estimates when the money is collected. Actual costs are computed after the election, and refunds are often given. The judge candidate's refund, for example, was nearly $22,000.
The spread between estimate and reality occurs because so many unknowns are at work, the registrar 's office says. The estimate is based on having two candidates in a race; but when three or four run for the office, the cost per candidate comes down. That's when there's a refund. If fewer people run than were originally estimated, the cost goes up.
Fitzgerald thinks the county could and should do a much better job at how it computes these numbers. "We made this known," he said. "Maybe they will correct it."
Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley doesn't feel there's anything to correct.
"We've looked at our accounting figures, we've had auditors look at our accounting figures, and they're on the money. We stand by our numbers," Kelley said.
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Record Number: 191699020
Copyright 2009 The Orange County Register