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Milwaukee council confirms election chief after staff raises concerns

Source: Alexander Shur / Votebeat

Milwaukee council confirms election chief after staff raises concerns

Staff members’ concerned letters to the mayor include one warning that Paulina Gutiérrez is unfamiliar with the processes needed to run elections smoothly.

June 17, 2024 9:07 AM CDT

By: Alexander Shur / Votebeat

The Milwaukee Common Council confirmed city election chief Paulina Gutiérrez on Tuesday after election staff had repeatedly voiced concerns about her appointment and one sent the mayor a letter a month ago saying she struggled to handle her job.

Gutiérrez, who joined the Milwaukee Election Commission in 2023 after holding jobs unrelated to election administration, is now slated to lead it through four elections in the next five months, including the contentious 2024 presidential election. She was confirmed unanimously without debate.

Through a public records request, Votebeat obtained two letters from staff members outlining concerns about Gutiérrez after they learned of her coming appointment, a surprise move that included the ousting of longtime director Claire Woodall.

Jonatan Zuñiga, a senior member of the commission staff, said in a May 3 letter to Mayor Cavalier Johnson that Gutiérrez “does not have the election administration, election law, WisVote voter registration system, or operations experience or knowledge needed to lead our department in a presidential election.”

“Having worked closely with Paulina for the past year, I have witnessed firsthand how she continues to struggle with basic procedures within her area of management and with working effectively under stressful situations,” Zuñiga continued. 

In his letter, Zuñiga said he wanted to draw attention to the “significant impact that this decision has already had on our 11-member team,” adding that two staffers stated their intentions to leave the election commission this summer.

“The prospect of losing two or more experienced staff members mere months before a presidential election is deeply concerning and presents an insurmountable challenge for our department,” he said.

Critical letter released moments before confirmation vote

The mayor’s office provided the letter Tuesday morning, moments before Gutiérrez’s confirmation vote and over a month after Votebeat requested communications about staff concerns.

Zuñiga released a statement Tuesday saying he wrote the letter the day he learned about the leadership change, which he called “a significant shock.” He added that after several meetings “to move forward, work together, and build trust,” Gutiérrez now had his full support.

“We are committed to ensuring the next four elections are secure, transparent, and accessible to all voters,” he said.

The other letter, sent by election commission training manager Jennifer Bennett on May 3, is less detailed but outlines that she has “specific concerns regarding Paulina’s ability to successfully lead our team.” Bennett didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the letters, election commission staff met with the mayor’s chief of staff and expressed their concerns about Gutiérrez in her presence.

The mayor’s office pushed back, saying the mayor “vehemently disagrees” with the concerns in Zuñiga’s original letter and describing Gutiérrez as “highly qualified and experienced in elections.” 

“She has already improved processes and is well prepared for the special election, the primary election and the general election coming up over the coming months,” Johnson spokesperson Jeff Fleming said on Tuesday.

“It is clear from the unanimous confirmation vote at the Milwaukee Common Council this morning that Gutiérrez is highly respected by leaders at the city of Milwaukee,” he continued. “The mayor has great confidence in her ability and integrity as she leads elections here.”

Gutiérrez didn’t directly respond to questions about how she’ll respond to staff concerns, but thanked the city council for its vote of confidence and said she is focused on administering elections fairly.

In early May, Johnson appointed Gutiérrez to the job that Woodall had held since 2020. He hasn’t explained in detail why he didn’t choose to reappoint Woodall, who largely had the backing of election commission staff.

Woodall, who had previously worked in Milwaukee elections for 11 years, with a brief break in 2019 to serve as Cedarburg’s clerk, said she was ousted because she was quoted in a recent news article criticizing election staff over a ballot error. A spokesperson for the mayor said there was more to it but declined to be more specific.

In appointing Gutiérrez, Johnson said her “integrity and capabilities are ideally suited to this position. I have confidence in her, and I will make certain the department has the resources it needs to fulfill its duties.”

Since the appointment of Gutiérrez, multiple election commission staff have told Votebeat and the mayor’s office that they’re concerned about her inexperience in elections and management style.

Bennett appeared concerned enough following news of the appointment that she called the mayor on his personal phone, which chief of staff Nick DeSiato said she shouldn’t do going forward, according to emails Votebeat received in response to a public records request.

Election officials say running elections is a highly stressful job requiring technical knowledge and the ability to make multiple consequential decisions in very short periods of time. That job is especially under the microscope in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s biggest city and a Democratic stronghold, where the slightest mistake — or even a perceived error — can trigger speculation or suspicion of election malfeasance. Milwaukee has two special elections in July before the statewide August primary.

But Gutiérrez has reassured staff and the public that she’ll be up to the task. 

In a memo to staff following her appointment, Gutiérrez said, “I am building a network of people with experience in elections to support our efforts in this upcoming critical election year. I am also connecting with other jurisdictions and election leaders to assist in my transition.”

Until early August she will also have Woodall, who took the temporary role of associate director to assist with the transition. The extended contract requires Woodall to work remotely but allows Gutiérrez to ask her questions about leading elections.

Gutiérrez breezes through Milwaukee confirmation process

Despite staff concerns over Gutiérrez’s appointment, she faced little pushback from city council members during the confirmation process. She received several letters of recommendation, including from former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske and Milwaukee Harbor District CEO Tia Torhorst.

The most critical questioning in her confirmation process came during a committee proceeding on June 3 from Ald. Scott Spiker, who asked her whether she may be “a little too green for such a momentous election.”

In response, Gutiérrez said she’s been in her role for 18 months and led the city’s central count, where election officials tally absentee ballots, during that time. 

“I have a large network of … former and current election officials that are just a phone call away, which has been great,” she said. “And again, elections are not run by just one person but by a group of people. And so I’m very lucky the staff that I have, who are committed to running elections, are consummate professionals, so I am confident in their abilities. And in places where I need assistance, I know where to go and get those resources. So I’m feeling really good about the future.”

Spiker also asked how Gutiérrez would deal with internal discord over her appointment.

“Change is hard, and different people react to it differently,” Gutiérrez said.

“I just want to assure everyone here today and the city of Milwaukee that our loyalty is to fair and transparent elections,” she said.

Alexander Shur is a reporter for Votebeat based in Wisconsin. Contact Shur at ashur@votebeat.org.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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