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Poll worker counseled after beach election

Published Sep. 9, 2005

(ran Beach edition)

A man filed a complaint saying the worker berated a candidate who wanted to watch ballots be packed up.

Call it a misunderstanding. Or call it, as some who witnessed it have, a breach of one of the sacraments of democracy: the right to a fairly executed election.

The precinct clerk who has manned the city's District 4 polling place for 15 years was accused last week of berating a candidate who wanted to watch poll workers pack up ballots after polls closed, as is allowed by law.

"She was screaming at a candidate who was just asking for her right," said John Bailey, a former city commissioner and frequent critic of St. Pete Beach's city government. Bailey was at the Warren Webster Community Center, where Vina Del Mar and Pass-a-Grille residents vote, throughout the day Tuesday and witnessed the incident moments after polls closed.

Bailey filed a formal complaint against the longtime precinct clerk, Jari Mogavero, the day after the election. The complaint was investigated by City Clerk Teresa McMaster, who is in charge of city elections and hires the poll workers.

McMaster said Thursday she had decided not to reprimand Mogavero or strip her of election duties next year, though she did talk to the precinct clerk about the remarks she made.

On Friday, Bailey dropped his complaint, saying he was satisfied that the precinct clerk was told not to discourage candidates from watching poll workers in the future.

"I'm satisfied that the outcome of this is that things will get better," Bailey said. "I'd just as soon put the community ahead of myself."

Still, the altercation _ or non-altercation, depending on which St. Pete Beach political camp you talk to _ illustrates how heated politics can be in the city's District 4. The district had a 39 percent voter turnout Tuesday for a race in which candidates were cordial and issues were relatively tame.

That was the highest turnout for all municipal elections held so far this month in the county, including St. Petersburg's nine-way race for mayor, which drew 25 percent of registered voters.

"The people down here are absolutely violent in their likes and dislikes," Mogavero said of District 4. "We have the greatest percentage of either civic supporters or civic naysayers than any other precinct, and we always get a greater voter turnout."

Mogavero said she did make some of the statements Bailey accused her of but is uncertain how loudly. She stands by what she said.

"For anyone to ask to watch me close up the polls is insulting my integrity," she said.

Did she yell that?

"I am extremely loud, and I have a very short fuse, and I may have," Mogavero said.

Mogavero said she also apologized to Kreider, who volunteers as a tour guide for the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum in Pass-a-Grille, where Mogavero is the volunteer site coordinator.

Though different people interviewed by the Times offered different accounts of what occurred, the incident unfolded like this:

Candidates Sherry Travis and Lolly Kreider, who won the election, spent Tuesday in the intermittent rain, lightning, fog and sunshine outside the Warren Webster Community Center. At 7 p.m., Travis approached the building to see if polls were indeed closed and found workers taking down signs.

Kreider approached the building with a couple of supporters to inquire about watching the workers pack up the ballots for transport to City Hall and then to the supervisor of elections office, where they would be counted.

Her two predecessors in the District 4 commission seat, Rachel Crepeau and John Bailey, both did the same on the days they were elected to office in 1999 and 1997, respectively.

Neither Kreider nor Travis would comment for this story. But Mogavero agrees with the first half of Bailey's account of what she told Kreider.

"I said to Lolly just exactly what I'm going to say to you now: "Yes, you can come in and watch if you want to, but I consider it an insult,' " Mogavero told the Times Thursday.

Bailey also accused Mogavero of going a step further and mentioning him by name as the person who had started the movement for watching workers close down the polling place. Mogavero denies mentioning Bailey.

Bailey said Mogavero said nothing to him when he inquired about watching them close the polls four years ago, though she did show a "hostile attitude." Mogavero said the complaint is no surprise, given her relationship with Bailey.

"John and I exist in a state of armed neutrality," she said.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said she was reluctant to comment on the issue because her office has nothing to do with the city's election employees. The county does, however, train those employees in county classes.

"I can tell you that in our poll worker training classes, we remind all of our poll workers that the process after the polls close is open to observers, and they have every right to be there and to be courteous to them," Clark said.

McMaster said she felt she could take little action because Kreider did not personally complain about the way Mogavero spoke to her, and Mogavero denies making any comments about Bailey.

"I will write a memo stating Mr. Bailey's complaint and what I have done and that, in my view, there was no violation of voter rights by the clerk," McMaster said.

McMaster said she agreed that Mogavero's statements would discourage a candidate from pursuing the right to watch the polls close, but no violation occurred because "she still didn't refuse the candidate entry."