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County Orders Inquiry of Voter Official

Times Staff Writer

Orange County supervisors decided Tuesday to order an investigation into the registrar of voters’ illegal handling of petitions to recall the Capistrano Unified School District trustees.

The supervisors voted unanimously to spend as much as $25,000 to hire a retired registrar to determine the sequence of events that led to the registrar allowing school district officials to view the signatures of those who signed the petition, a violation of state law.

“I feel there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Supervisor Jim Silva. “We have to bring this to a closure the most fair way possible.”

Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley admitted last month that his office had improperly let two school officials view the names of people who signed petitions in the contentious recall campaign against school board members in the academically distinguished district, which stretches from San Clemente to Mission Viejo.

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The district has been sued for allegedly violating the state’s open-meeting law and its superintendent recently resigned as parents alleged he used “Nixonish” tactics such as creating an enemies list and asking someone to infiltrate the recall movement.

The recall supporters began their drive late last year, complaining about the boundaries for newly constructed San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano.

Parents collected 177,000 signatures to oust all seven trustees.

The registrar subsequently invalidated 35% of the signatures, enough that the recall failed to qualify for the ballot.

A lawsuit alleging the invalidations were unfair failed, and investigations by both the county district attorney and the secretary of state’s office determined there was no crime committed nor violation of the election code warranting a criminal investigation.

Recall organizer Kim Davey said she was pleased with the supervisors’ decision Tuesday but said: “I’m concerned that they get the right person to do the investigation. I’m concerned that there are public officials covering for each other.”

The retired registrar, who will have no ties to Orange County, will be asked to determine what the school officials did with the information collected during their inspection and find out what instructions petitioners were given by the office of the registrar before they began collecting signatures.

Supervisors did not chastise Kelley but rather talked about the need for the office to better educate first-time candidates and organizers of recalls and initiatives.

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Parents, for instance, say they were told by the registrar’s office that signers didn’t need to write their addresses on the petitions, yet the registrar later invalidated those signatures.

“There should be a Recall or Initiative 101 with a page of phone numbers ... to answer questions ... so you are not relying on ‘He said, she said,’ ” said Supervisor Tom Wilson.


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