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Politics & Policy

Elections panel falsely claims high ground in racial diversity spat

An office with "DEPARTMENT OF ELECTIONS" on the wall, blurred figures in the foreground, possibly through a window.
Staff carries out business at the Department of Elections in San Francisco on Aug. 11, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

In Brazil, they say, “The dirty talking about the badly washed.”

In Greece, it’s, “The donkey said the rooster had a big head.”

Now, thanks to the people in charge of the city’s Elections Department, San Francisco has, “The bureaucrats who are tardy on their anti-racism homework fired the official with a winning record on equality.”

Last month, the panel overseeing the San Francisco Department of Elections decided to let the contract of Elections Director John Arntz expire to open up hiring and attract diverse candidates and thereby help the agency meet its goals for equity and inclusion.

But records reviewed by The Standard show that according to the very citywide racial equity program used to justify the decision, the commission itself falls short. 

Arntz, on the other hand, runs a department with one of the best records in the city when it comes to equity. Ninety-six percent of respondents to a survey that is required as part of the mayor’s citywide equity program gave a vote of confidence in racial relations in their office.

John Arntz, the director of San Francisco's Department of Elections, saw his job status go into limbo after the Elections Commission voted last month to conduct a nationwide search. | Courtesy of ABC-7

Mayor London Breed launched the ambitious equity initiative in 2020 to end racial disparity in the San Francisco workforce. The program required all city departments to survey employees about equity and fairness—and the results reflected well on Arntz. 

Elections Department employees turned out to be some of the most satisfied in the city. According to the survey, staff overwhelmingly said Arntz should be commended for his leadership on the racial equity.

On paper, the Department of Elections is also one of the most aggressive when it comes to making its workplace more fair. It revamped the rules on hiring, promotion, discipline and worker retention as part of an ongoing push to shed any vestigial discrimination from prior administrations.

“From my first day working at the Department of Elections I have felt included,” said Norma Agustin, a recent Filipina immigrant who serves on the department’s racial equity team. 

At the same time, the Elections Commission that wanted Arntz to compete for his job against new candidates has only met a few requirements set by the equity plan, a recent draft report noted. The commission said it’s made more progress since that report came out. 

That contradiction came into sharper relief with the commission’s vote on the Arntz contract, one election worker said.

“I think the idea of potentially replacing the director as a way for them to meet their requirements on their racial equity plan seems like a cop out,” said Mayank Patel, another member of the department’s racial equity team. 

The controversy unfolded last month, when Commissioner Cynthia Dai told The Standard she voted to open the appointment process, which allows Arntz to apply like any other candidate, “to support the mayor’s racial equity plan.”

Robin Stone, commission vice president, agreed with Dai and explained in a Nov. 21 memo that she, too, hopes to “expand equitable access” to top department jobs. But when asked about her commission’s latest update on those racial equity goals, she said she was unfamiliar with the report. 

“Notwithstanding our lack of knowledge with the document, the commission has prioritized several equity initiatives over the last several months,” Stone said. 

Commission President Chris Jerdonek said the panel has worked on its own equity goals by rewriting bylaws, listing preferred pronouns on its website, allowing non-citizens on its redistricting task force and affirming that San Francisco stands on ancestral Ohlone land. 

He said the department managed to make more progress on equity because it has a bigger budget. And though he joined the vote to open the call for new candidates, he hopes Arntz participates in the hiring process. 

Arntz has led the Department of Elections for 21 years, with his latest five-year term ending in May. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Tuesday the Board of Supervisors plans to hold a hearing to consider blocking funds for any candidate search while advocating for Arntz’s reappointment.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at