After rocky vote tallying, Pinal County won't retrieve bonus from former elections director

People exit the 1891 Pinal County Courthouse after a meeting with the Pinal County attorney and Board of Supervisors chairman to address election day ballot shortages in Pinal County on Aug. 3, 2022, in Florence.
People exit the 1891 Pinal County Courthouse after a meeting with the Pinal County attorney and Board of Supervisors chairman to address election day ballot shortages in Pinal County on Aug. 3, 2022, in Florence.

Weeks after vote tallying errors came to light in Pinal County, supervisors are reluctantly giving up on getting their money back from former Elections Director Virginia Ross.

The idea initially was floated during the Board of Supervisors' first meeting of the year, when Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh said he wanted to speak with his fellow elected officials and county staff about recovering the money.

But Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer told the board Feb. 1 that Ross largely fulfilled the terms and conditions of her contract and that going after her $25,000 performance bonus wasn't legally wise.

"The likelihood of being successful is minuscule at best, and we would likely expend more resources litigating that issue than we would recoup even in the event that we won," Volkmer said. "And, in the event that we lost, we would essentially be paying out even further finances."

The decision comes after a 500-vote discrepancy between certified election tallies and recounted results came to light in December. Ross' bonus was paid before the counting problems were known to supervisors.

With staff input, the supervisors are now putting the issue of her compensation to bed. But that doesn't mean all of them are happy about it.

"This issue was brought up by the public, knowing that it's not likely that you go and claw back a bonus. But people are naturally concerned that we didn't do an election quite right," Cavanaugh said.

Later, in response to a question from Supervisor Jeff McClure accusing him of "innuendo and conspiracy theory," Cavanaugh clarified that by saying the election was not "quite right," he was referring to the undercount.

"We're talking about a contract, and what was known during the course of employment and if the provisions of the contract were met, so that's the context here," Cavanaugh said. "There's no conspiracy."

Ross' agreement with the county

In August, Pinal County came to a lucrative deal with Ross — a $175,000 salary and a $25,000 performance award in exchange for four months of work and a smooth November election.

The contract came after a primary election mess for the county. In July, about 63,000 early ballots for the primary election were sent to voters with errors related to local races. Then, on the Aug. 2 primary election day, one-quarter of the county's polling places ran out of ballots.

Those issues ultimately led to the firing of former Elections Director David Frisk and an outside investigation into the problems, which revealed that the Elections Department was "chronically understaffed" with high turnover. Ross was hired after Frisk's departure to right the course ahead of the general election.

Her compensation agreement put her toward the top of the pay scale in Pinal County and made her the highest-paid election official among Arizona's largest counties.

Ross's contract, first reported by The Republic, laid out exactly what she needed to do to see her award:

  • Deliver accurate ballots in sufficient quantities to the correct voting locations.

  • Open polling locations on time with the necessary equipment.

  • Properly train poll workers.

  • Prepare for a successful accuracy test of equipment.

  • Submit all reports per state law.

  • Coordinate with city and town clerks.

Her bonus also was contingent on results being canvassed by the board — and they were on Nov. 21, about a week before the canvass deadline.

On Nov. 28, the day of the deadline, new Elections Director Geraldine Roll found the tallying discrepancies. She checked to make sure there was no other potential explanation for the vote difference she discovered and then reported it to Volkmer on Nov. 30.

County manager defends employment agreement

Ross's agreement was a limited-term employment offer, a new position classification created by the Board of Supervisors in June to stem recruitment challenges.

While overhauling the different types of employment contracts offered at the county, supervisors gave County Manager Leo Lew the ability to negotiate and execute agreements like Ross's, with review from the county's budget staff and Human Resources Department. On Wednesday, Lew defended his decision to sign off on Ross's compensation deal.

Ross was known for running successful elections under rough conditions, he said. Before taking on the county's primary mess as elections director, she served as recorder and steadied the helm after a warehouse fire destroyed nearly all of the county's election equipment in 2014.

"It was an incredible feat by Virginia and the rest of the team at that time," Lew said.

Part of the reason Ross's pay was so high, he said, was because by leaving her position as county recorder, she was also giving up money that would have been added to her pension. The limited-term agreement did not offer Ross benefits or retirement pay.

She proposed the performance bonus and its requirements as a measure to reassure the public that the election would run smoothly after the turmoil of the primary and Frisk's firing, Lew said.

"I thought that was fair, and I thought those were good expectations and good things to put in there," Lew said. "She was the one who offered that."

In the aftermath of the tallying problems, supervisors didn't directly threaten to take away the classification or Lew's ability to negotiate such contracts. But, they tacitly warned he should proceed with caution.

"My only request is in the future, if we have these and they're specific to performance, that we might run it by the County Attorney's Office," Cavanaugh said.

Lew said he will do so in the future. But he maintained that he believes Ross did the most effective job she could under the circumstances.

"I think Virginia did substantially do her job and I think she did substantially fulfill this contract," Lew said. "I'm thankful that she did."

Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip about county government or county services? Reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Pinal County won't retrieve $25K bonus from former elections director