TAMPA — The last few years have been tough for Hillsborough's Supervisor of Elections office.
Buddy Johnson, the former supervisor, overspent his budget by more than $2 million, a fact that wasn't revealed until he left office in January.
His successor, Phyllis Busansky, vowed to turn the office around, a task made complicated by an ongoing FBI investigation into Johnson. Then she died in June of natural causes.
July 14, Gov. Charlie Crist tapped Earl Lennard to replace Busansky. Lennard, 67, served as superintendent of Hillsborough schools from 1996 to 2005. He sat down with the St. Petersburg Times recently to talk about how he plans to steady an office that is responsible for ensuring accurate, affordable and timely elections.
It's been more than two weeks since Gov. Crist appointed you supervisor of elections. What have you been doing to get caught up?
Going over staff, the directors who are responsible on a day-to-day basis for the operation of the office. Essentially understanding where the office is and where it is headed.
What's your first take on where the office is right now?
I think the office right now is in good shape.
How does this job compare to what you did as schools superintendent?
You gear up for an election like you do for the first day of school. It's also necessary to have extraordinarily well-educated employees who are steeped in the functioning of the office.
So you'll promote more training?
Sure. We want to cast a wide net and engage people to become poll workers and train them so they can do it effortlessly, you know, routinely. We also must find a way to recognize the poll workers, let them know that they are important to an election. I don't know how to do that, but maybe recognize them with a dinner or something where folks can come together and say this worked because of them.
Any programs or practices that you will discontinue?
I don't know. Every program will be scrutinized. We will look at time and effort, is it beneficial in making the election run smoothly.
Will you be ready for the first election (Plant City's races in April 2010)?
We'll be ready. We are ready.
What's the biggest problem facing your office: 1) Voters not voting because they are ill-informed; 2) Voters not voting because their votes are lost in a technical glitch or because they are turned away by poll workers; or 3) Voter fraud, where people shouldn't vote, but do?
The office faces all three. The bigger problem, probably, is engaging the public to get out there and vote and making sure the machinery works smoothly.
What have you been able to learn about the $2 million deficit left behind by Johnson?
The audits are ongoing. Until they are done, I'm making it a policy that it wouldn't be prudent for me to talk about the audits.
But how do you work with a $2 million deficit?
We'll just have to work with the Board of County Commissioners that, if that's what it turns out to be, that we have some way to pay it. We have to move forward.
Will you ask for more money from commissioners?
If it's necessary, but I'm hopeful it won't be necessary. At this time, we've developed a budget where we don't think it will be necessary. But all the audits aren't in, so we don't know. But it's looming. Oh yeah. And it will be something that will be dealt with.
Another thing looming is the FBI investigation. Have you learned anything about what it might reveal?
Absolutely not. The bureau hasn't shared anything with me at all. If anything comes out of it, we will put in safeguards to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Should this be a partisan office?
It is a partisan office, but it has to run in a nonpartisan manner.
Why did you switch parties, from Democrat to Republican, when you retired from superintendent in 2005?
I thought it was a good fit. I'm a fiscally conservative person. I think I can operate this office in a nonpartisan manner. I have just as many friends who are Democrats (as) Republicans.
Do you plan on running for supervisor of elections in 2010?
The continuity is very important for the people. And while I'm not filing papers today, there is absolutely an intent that I'll be running.