Los Osos CSD faces lawsuit after board seat called into question after election error

The Los Osos Community Services District will discuss next month how they want to proceed with a contested board of directors appointment after a legal challenge was filed by a candidate who lost the recent election due to an error by the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office.

Stephen Best, who the clerk’s office says lost his bid for a seat on the board by a mere 60 votes, filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court late last month challenging the results because a board appointee’s seat should have also been on ballot.

Best claims that the blunder “was not simple misunderstanding of the rules as it appears,” but rather an attempt by the district to shoe-horn in a preferred candidate.

District legal counsel Ray Hanley denied that allegation on Friday and argued the board had little choice up to this point but to keep on Christine Womack, who was appointed to the board before the election, in April, to finish the unexpired term of former Director Jon-Erik Storm.

Stephen Best has filed a lawsuit claiming the bungled election for the Los Osos Community Services District board of directors was not a simple clerical error. Stephen Best

The county concedes an error at the Clerk-Recorder’s Office caused Womack’s name to not appear on the ballot as election law required.

The entire course of events leaves the district in an electoral, legal and administrative quagmire.

At Thursday’s regularly scheduled meeting, the board of directors unanimously decided to place an open-session discussion on the Feb. 7 agenda on how to proceed.

The board on Thursday also discussed Best’s lawsuit in closed session, but no reportable action was taken, Hanley said Friday.

Should a judge overturn the results of the election due to Best’s lawsuit, three of the five current board members’ seats — not just Womack’s — would be in question and could possibly preclude them from participating in critical decisions on how to move forward, Hanley said.

‘Clerical error’

In April, Womack was appointed by the board to finish the unexpired term of former director Storm, who resigned to deal with a family matter.

The district says that in June, staff sent the Clerk-Recorder’s Office its the required election materials and listed as three the number of board seats up for grabs in the November election, each for four year terms..

But Hanley said the district received information back from the Clerk-Recorder’s Office stating there were two four-year terms and one two-year term. Hanley said district staff called the county clerk’s office to verify, which it did.

According to Hanley, the Notice of Election for those two four-year terms and one two-year term was published before the deadline for people to file for candidacy, and only Womack chose to run for the two-year term.

Hanley said state election laws state that “in the event there are no nominees for each elective office, and a petition for an election is not filed with the elections official within the time period prescribed by law, an appointment shall be made,” and thus Womack’s name and two-year term did not appear on the ballot.

Instead, residents were given the choice between Best, incumbent director Chuck Cesena and newcomers Matthew Fourcroy and Craig Baltimore. Cesena and Fourcroy prevailed with 33.6 percent and 28.3 percent of the vote, respectively. Best came in third, with 27.6 percent.

According to the Clerk’s Office, 11,061 residents cast votes in the race.

It wasn’t until after voting was complete but before the count was finalized that the county recognized the error. County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong has publicly apologized for the mistake and says he takes full responsibility.

“The Clerk-Recorder’s Office has confirmed that district staff was never involved in any internal process that caused the mistake,” Hanley wrote.

County Counsel Rita Neal confirmed Friday that Womack initially filed papers for a four-year term “but changed her candidacy filing to a two-year term after she was incorrectly informed by the Clerk-Recorder’s office that the seat was for a two-year term.”

On Nov. 20, the county board of supervisors rescinded its appointment of Womack, leaving her existing term to expire on Dec. 7, 2018, until a successor was qualified and took office.

Neal said the board then had the option to extend Womack’s existing appointment for an additional two-year term, ending on Dec. 4, 2020, or she could stay on while the district pursued a special election for her seat alone in November 2019.

But Womack remains on the board, despite no vote taking place to extend her appointment. Neal said state law allows an incumbent to remain in office until a successor replaces them, and the district can therefore leave Womack in office until a successor is appointed.

Should a successor be appointed, that person will serve for two years. If no appointment is made, Womack can remain in office until there is a possible special election in November 2019, Neal said.

‘I was wronged’

In his civil complaint, Best alleges that elected members and staff of the district, notably President Director Vickie Milledge and General Manager Rene Osborne, knew Womack should have appeared on the ballot for a four-year term “and were (complicit) in covering up the error.”

Best, who is representing himself in the legal case, does not say why he believes Milledge and district staff would want Womack on the board over himself. But he said Womack was on the board in June when it voted to approve the three four-year terms for the November ballot.

Hanley said he did not recall that vote Friday, and minutes of the meeting were not immediately available.

Best also alleges that Womack accepted the change to a two-year term on her candidacy application one day before the applicant deadline, ensuring herself an unopposed ballot position.

In addition to automatically winning the seat, Best argues, Womack did not have to campaign or spend any funds.

“I was wronged and deprived of (a) fair and honest election,” Best wrote in the complaint, noting that “the odds and percentages of each of the other candidates were altered” by the omission of Womack on the ballot.

Attached to Best’s civil lawsuit is a formal complaint he filed with the District Attorney’s Office on Nov. 8, which asks how Womack was able to change her candidacy from a four- to two-year term. Best alleges Womack would have “needed the support and approval from” Osborne and/or Milledge “to cover up the change so it would not be detected or make it look like normal business.”

Best wrote that “there are most likely other parties that have close relationships with the stated persons and have vested interest to influence the election that hold senior positions with the county.”

Because of those allegations, Best told the DA’s Office he’s “concerned about retaliation on myself and my wife that could cause us to lose our home.”

San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said Thursday that Best’s request is currently in the “inquiry” stage where officials are gathering records to see if an formal investigation is warranted.

A case management hearing for Best’s lawsuit has been scheduled for Feb. 11 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Hanley said he disagreed with Best’s allegations and said the law states that Womack can legally stay in the position until an elected successor is sworn in.

“One could argue — and I am not arguing this without the consent of the board — that in spite of the election officials’ mistake, it is in fact a four-year term,” he said.

Still, he said the entire mishap has put the district in a precarious situation.

“If I were Ms. Womack, and if someone were to have me removed from the board, I could sue the district,” he said.

Hanley said the district board may have taken action sooner, but holiday absences and Best’s complaints and recent litigation — which wasn’t filed until Dec. 28 — briefly stalled the process.

He said it was unfortunate that the county’s error affected Los Osos, a community with a long history of dysfunction and management scandals.

“If you’re going to make a mistake, why’d it have to be Los Osos?” he said. “We have too much of a history here.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct an error. Christine Womack is treasurer of the Los Osos Community Advisory Council.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.