New clerk: more to tell 

Between the Lines

By most measures, Mayor Steve Bach made an intriguing decision last week when he hired Sarah Johnson to become the next Colorado Springs city clerk, starting June 4.

However, Bach's office failed to tell City Council, or the public, every detail about his appointment to replace Kathryn Young, who retired last year.

Look at it one way, and you might applaud Bach for bringing in somebody with such strong election-related credentials. Johnson served eight years as executive director of the Kentucky State Elections Board, and another nine-plus years on that agency's staff before that.

Young's mishandling of election-related issues in 2011 created embarrassment for the city and hastened her departure last summer; it was obvious she wouldn't fit into Bach's regime. So why not bring in a replacement who has such an impressive background in elections, enough that she served as an officer in the National Association of State Election Directors?

Of course, you also might wonder why someone with that kind of background would want to be a city clerk in Colorado Springs.

But wait. What if you knew that Johnson was fired from her previous job last December, in a 5-0 vote by the bipartisan Kentucky State Elections Board? What if you knew that nobody shared that fact with City Council before its vote last week to confirm her appointment?

"This is the first I've heard of it," Council President Scott Hente says.

Bernie Herpin, one of two councilors who talked to Johnson by phone, recalls that her résumé described the departure as the result of change in political leaders.

It's true, Johnson's removal came after Kentucky's voters last November elected a Democrat as secretary of state. Johnson, a Republican, had no apparent problem working with either party. But that 5-0 vote had to include at least two Republicans on the state board.

The firing apparently did not lead to any deep media coverage in Kentucky, defending her or not. Attempts to reach Johnson for comment were not successful, but just the fact that a bipartisan board voted unanimously to remove her should warrant some kind of explanation on this end.

"Of course, look at somebody like Rick Myers," Hente says, referring to the Colorado Springs police chief ousted by Bach last October but recently hired as interim chief in Sanford, Fla. "He was basically fired [though it was called a 'retirement'], but Sanford obviously knew that he was a great cop.

"This might be one of those things that you have to take with a grain of salt. But sure, it would've been nice to know more."

At the same time, you might question why Bach would hire a candidate whose experience has been so totally focused on elections. As the city's website says: "The City Clerk is the official record keeper and custodian of the following: corporate seal of the city, agendas, ordinances, minutes, resolutions, election records, contracts/agreements, business licenses, annexations. In addition, the City Clerk's Office records all ordinances, agreements and other legal matters; publishes all ordinances and notices as required by law; attests all resolutions, ordinances, agreements, contracts and other legal documents of the City; prepares the City Council agendas and minutes; prepares the Liquor and Beer Licensing Board agendas and minutes; and conducts municipal elections."

The clerk's office has handled almost all those functions without trouble — other than the 2011 city election, which had a laundry list of missteps. But is one election every two years enough to hire a $115,000 clerk who would seem to have such a narrow specialty?

Then again, there's another not-so-minor task facing the clerk's office. Soon, Johnson's staff must re-draw the City Council district maps, turning the city from four to six districts for the April 2013 election. County Clerk Wayne Williams had offered his office's services to do that, and even to oversee the municipal election, which would save the city a lot of money.

Instead, we hear Bach wants to control redistricting, to hand-pick candidates who can win and give him a majority of support on Council. With his elections expert helping produce that new map, he should be set.

Maybe. But first, a little more transparency might be in order, starting with the whole story about Sarah Johnson.


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