Buddy Johnson made at least three fundamental mistakes in his six sorry years as Hillsborough County's elections supervisor: He never understood the voting technology, failed to train the staff and had no regard for transparency. Phyllis Busansky clearly touched the voters' desire for change in defeating Johnson in November. Her death in June after only five months in office means the task falls now to Earl Lennard, the retired county school superintendent whom Gov. Charlie Crist appointed to the job last month.
Lennard may not have been the voters' choice, but reversing Johnson's legacy is now his responsibility. He needs to focus on the essential areas that Johnson took for granted to restore public confidence in the elections process.
Johnson was an absentee boss whose micromanagement by cell phone undermined the orderly function of the office and poisoned employee morale. Though Busansky was in office only briefly, she was a quick study whose history as a Hillsborough County commissioner gave her an edge in moving the elections office forward. Lennard does not have the same advantages; the school system has always been a unique bureaucracy outside the radar of county government. He also is an untested political force. But an elections chief needs the same qualities as a good school administrator: attention to detail, a commitment to serve different constituencies fairly and an appreciation for what role the office plays in society.
Busansky, in her short tenure, expressed confidence in the new, optical-scan voting equipment. While Johnson had trouble with every system his office put in place, his problems resulted from his failure to test equipment and train the staff. Lennard will need to find the same comfort as Busansky did with the optical-scan system. He needs to assess whether the office needs better computer and communications technology and also whether that equipment is appropriately deployed.
Johnson was routinely late in posting election results. His staff also misprinted ballots, failed to anticipate turnout at the polls, gave voters incomplete ballots and lost and mislaid votes. All these mistakes were due to poor staff and poll worker training. Lennard needs to continue an examination Busansky started into how to better train the staff. A big help would be loosening the culture under Johnson where staff members were intimidated from questioning the boss. Poll workers also need authority at the precincts to handle problems. That will require training and perhaps additional equipment to ensure that voting is uniform across the county. But it makes no sense to centralize all decisionmaking in two or three people at elections headquarters.
Lennard also needs to be open and visible, especially in the months ahead. The ongoing FBI investigation into Johnson and audits into how he overspent his budget raise a host of questions. Lennard is right to look ahead, but he has a responsibility to address Johnson's use of public money and resources — especially as local taxpayers may be on the hook for millions in questionable spending.
Lennard has made a good start. He kept Busansky's chief of staff, Craig Latimer, whose law enforcement background and organizational skills will help erase the Johnson-era culture. Lennard needs to keep the office current with the times. That means expanding opportunities for voter outreach, simplifying the use of the Web and ensuring that elections are free, fair and counted accurately and promptly. Busansky started the process. Her contribution in removing Johnson will not be forgotten. But what's at stake now is Lennard's legacy. This is a new chapter in his public service.