Voters’ trust hangs in the balance

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On today’s op-ed page, Jim Brannon’s recently defeated opponent accurately points out the opaque nature of the clerk’s view of transparency.

Dan Gookin, a Coeur d’Alene City Council member, has long been an advocate for real transparency among public servants. Gookin’s reputation as a stickler on that point has earned him great respect in some quarters and open disdain in others. Regardless, he’s right in this instance: The person with overall responsibility for Kootenai County elections, Jim Brannon, is falling short of his duty.

By generating far more questions than answers, Clerk Brannon has undermined the confidence that voters need in this most important civic exercise. He has had almost a week to accomplish two critical tasks: First, to explain precisely what has happened, and second, to show what’s being done to ensure there will be no repeat of the missteps that led to 50 voters’ ballots not being counted. He has done neither.

In Press news reports, Brannon has steered clear of linking the forced departure of Carrie Phillips, the former elections manager, with the failure of ballot counting in the last election. Brannon has cited privacy on personnel issues in his refusal to explain why Phillips fell into so much disfavor that she was asked to resign after 17 years in the elections department. Yet the personnel provision is not a blanket escape clause. Something in the last election failed. Brannon could easily explain why he became suspicious of the vote count and what specifically went wrong. His silence encourages citizens to draw conclusions that might be both inaccurate and unfair.

Timing matters. The next election is March 12, when voters will go to the polls to decide school funding issues. Early voting starts Feb. 25.

As gratifying as it will be to uncloak the November election mystery, more important is openly communicating with the electorate to show how the problems are being addressed and thereby instilling confidence that in Kootenai County, every vote will count. That trust has been badly shaken. It’s up to the county clerk to restore it.

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