St. Louis election board wracked with turmoil
Election board

St. Louis election board wracked with turmoil

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ST. LOUIS • Relationships on the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners have become so tense over the last six months that city leaders expect Gov. Jay Nixon to replace some or all of the appointed board members.

Commissioners and employees say meetings have descended into name-calling and finger-pointing that threaten to stall board business and drive off staff. Leaders have accused each other of being mean-spirited, vindictive or even racist.

And multiple board members said chairwoman Eileen McCann admitted in a board meeting that she was so suspicious of an employee, Republican Director Scott Leiendecker, that she drove by his house one day to make sure he wasn't skipping out on work.

McCann, a Democrat who became chairwoman of the board last August, would not address the issue. "I drive all over the city," she said. She said she couldn't talk about what she called a "personnel issue" concerning Leiendecker.

"There are a lot of things being said to discredit me because they didn't like the change," she said of the other board leaders. "The buck stops at the chair, and I seem to be the person taking the hits."

The Board of Election Commissioners is a state-mandated and city-funded agency charged with maintaining the city's voter registration list and running all elections in St. Louis. The top two employees are its directors: Leiendecker, a Republican, and Mary Wheeler-Jones, a Democrat.

The board comprises four commissioners — two Republicans and two Democrats — who are appointed by the governor and annually receive either $6,000, for members, or $7,000, for the board secretary and chair.

McCann and Clarence Dula are the board's Democrats; Jack Lary and Carol Wilson are Republican members. All their terms expired in 2009 when Nixon took office. Each has served more than four years, and all are waiting to hear when new appointments will be made.

Local politicians and city leaders now say Nixon's staff is deep in the process of vetting board candidates and could announce new commissioners as soon as this week.

Multiple governor's office staffers did not return phone calls. A spokesman replied via e-mail late Tuesday that the office would not comment.

Dula, a commissioner appointed in 2005, said he was content with his service on the board and was ready to step down.

"We did what we came to do," he said. "We were horrible, absolutely horrible at one time."

The 2000 election was an embarrassment for the whole city, Dula said. Thousands were left waiting to vote at polling places late on Election Day, and a judge ordered the polls to remain open an extra 45 minutes. "That became the signature for St. Louis politics," he said.

Dula and other new commissioners, including Republican Ed Martin, replaced staff, made polls accessible to the handicapped and elderly, cleaned voter registration lists and transitioned to electronic voting. "We did a damn good job," Dula said.

But Dula said he was concerned about the board again and believed it needed to change. "Let's just say the cardiograph is making different heights on the chart," he said. "It's a different heartbeat of the organization. Arrhythmia. "

Several inside the organization said the problems could be boiled down to personality conflicts.

"I don't know what's going on down there," said Lary, the board secretary. "It was bad before Eileen became chair. It got worse in August when she became chair."

Board member Wilson felt more strongly: "Eileen McCann probably sees herself as a strong advocate for her positions, but she has no boundaries, no insight that if you hit below the belt you can't then demand respect from your victim," Wilson said in an e-mail. "She often verbally attacked staff and commissioners in meetings with so much ad hominem venom that it left many of us stunned."

At the end of last month, one staffer, Republican Policy Supervisor Kyle Dubbert, quit. He wouldn't discuss his reasoning. "I really think my departure is comment enough," he said.

But he gushed about how well the staff had worked together before McCann became chair. "We were a cohesive team for four years," he said. "We managed to turn that place around, through hard work and teamwork.

"This doesn't have anything to do with politics, with party line," he continued. "Republicans and Democrats work great together down at the board."

McCann disagreed. She said Republicans had run the board for years prior. When a Democrat took over, feathers were ruffled, she said.

"It should be a natural transition," she said. "I have never seen such angst at change."

Still, complaints have now been lodged with the mayor's office and passed on to the governor's staffers.

"We've heard from multiple people how difficult the work environment was, and how even the simplest things devolve into ugliness," said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay. "My impression from the outside is that there are some people over there who can't stand each other."

But it's the consequences that really worry city leaders. If the tension continues, how many more employees will quit, as Dubbert did?

Rainford, however, said he believed the governor's staffers were taking the complaints seriously and moving to fix the problems.

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