A monthslong rift between Shawnee County Commission chairman Bob Archer and election commissioner Andrew Howell continued Monday, when Howell questioned budget numbers for his office put forth by county financial administrator Betty Greiner.
Archer then suggested Howell made an unusually high estimate of how much it would cost his office to conduct a recount of votes in a school board race recently decided by three votes.
County commissioners and Howell — the only county department head appointed by a state official, the secretary of state — have been embroiled in a public disagreement over whether Kansas law calls for the election office budget amount to be controlled by the county commission or by the election commissioner.
In 2016, Howell spent about $1.41 million overseeing county elections — about $85,000 more than the $1,324,935 budget approved by the county commission.
Commissioners voted 3-0 last March to cut Howell’s annual salary by about 15 percent.
In a presentation about county revenues and expenditures at Monday’s meeting, Greiner told commissioners Howell’s office as of the end of October was $158,000 over its budget for that time period.
Howell went to the lectern later in the meeting, saying Greiner’s figures were inaccurate and he had no idea where she got them.
“I guess I’ll just register a public disagreement on that front,” he said.
Greiner spoke to Howell after Monday’s meeting, Archer told The Topeka Capital-Journal on Monday afternoon.
“She explained to him that her budget numbers were simply based on normalized monthly projections of expenses,” he said. “In addition, she had reviewed the projections with the deputy elections commissioner as the budget was prepared. I do believe that he had no idea where the expense numbers are coming from.”
Howell also stressed Monday that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a ruling Aug. 8 saying commissioners must include in their budget “the expenses necessary to pay salaries and operate the office of commissioner of elections, as certified by the election commissioner.”
He said the budget amount commissioners approved for his office is well below the amount he certified.
Archer told The Capital-Journal that Schmidt’s opinion is “an opinion only” and doesn’t have the force of law.
He said Shawnee County counselor Jim Crowl and the Kansas Association of Counties plan to propose legislation next year that would ensure that statewide, each election commissioner’s budget is set by his or her county commission.
It is “not acceptable” for an elections commissioner — who is appointed — to set his or her own budget and “not be accountable to anyone,” Archer said.
Near the end of Monday’s meeting, Archer recalled that when he ran for the Topeka City Council in 2009 — winning by one vote — then-election commissioner Elizabeth Ensley’s office conducted a recount of about 3,000 ballots, which took nine employees four hours to carry out at a cost of $250.
Archer noted that Howell had estimated conducting a recount of about 2,100 ballots in a close school board election in Shawnee Heights Unified School District 450 would take 29 employees seven hours and cost $1,390.
“I think that says volumes about the operations of our election office today,” Archer said.
He told The Capital-Journal later Monday he thinks the spending of taxpayer dollars is “out of control” in the elections office.
In the school board race to which Archer referred, a canvass conducted last week by Shawnee County commissioners determined Rosa Cavazos beat Tom Browne Jr. by three votes.
Howell defended his recount cost estimate, telling The Capital-Journal he crafted it while taking into account how much time it took other election offices to carry out similar recounts.
Howell said he felt disappointed that Archer would publicly criticize his estimate “without knowing all the facts.”
He said Shawnee County’s current voting system is different from the one it was using in 2009 because it creates a paper ballot for each vote cast, which means there are “a lot more actual ballots that have to be counted.”
Howell added that some county precincts have been combined since 2009, meaning election workers conducting a recount would have to do more sorting, and that different-sized ballots are generated by those who cast a paper ballot and those who use an electronic voting machine featuring a touch screen, which means they would have to be separated into different stacks.
Contact reporter Tim Hrenchir at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.