Two current and former City Council members in the area have challenged the three-word personal description that former Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith has asked to be placed next to her name on the November ballot.
Keith is a candidate for the San Mateo County Harbor District who describes herself as a "Conservation Agency Director."
The San Mateo County Elections Office has looked into the challenge and will let the description remain on the ballot.
Keith is running for the District 5 seat on the San Mateo County Harbor District against another Menlo Park resident, incumbent Virginia Chang Kiraly, who is also running to keep her seat on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board.
Keith works as an attorney and was appointed by the City Council to be Menlo Park's representative on the board of directors for the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) in 2013.
She said in an email that she chose the designation because her seven years on the board of BAWSCA is the most relevant for the elected office she is seeking on the harbor district board, and because she cannot use more than three words to describe her position because it is not an elected office.
She noted that she describes her full title in her candidate statement, and provided alternate designations that included her work as an attorney, but the Elections Office confirmed that her first proposed designation was "legal and appropriate."
The elections code, she added, "does not state that a candidate is required to designate a profession, vocation or occupation that provides the largest percentage of income or takes up the most hours in a week."
Portola Valley Vice Mayor Maryann Derwin said she and former Menlo Park Councilman Heyward Robinson challenged Keith's ballot designation.
"We both saw it and said, 'No, this is not right,'" Derwin said in an interview.
After receiving the challenge, the county Elections Office contacted Keith, who provided additional information and reference materials that "reaffirmed that her designation was factually accurate and a principal profession," Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer for the San Mateo County Elections Office, told The Almanac in an email.
Derwin said that she challenged the designation for several reasons – first, that being a BAWSCA board member does not appear to be Keith's primary occupation. She is a private criminal defense attorney who works with the San Mateo County Private Defender program.
"That's something she should tout," Derwin said.
By contrast, the BAWSCA board meets six times per year, has 26 members, and pays board members $100 per meeting, said Heyward Robinson in an email to the county Elections Office challenging the description.
According to Irizarry, the ballot designation, a description that appears under a candidate's name on the ballot, is meant to convey "the current principal professions, vocations or occupations of the candidate."
Another problem she had with the designation, Derwin said, is that it could lead voters to believe Keith is an executive director, rather than a member of a board of directors.
A third issue, Derwin said, is that BAWSCA isn't exclusively an environmental nonprofit. It supports a number of water conservation initiatives, such as its "Lawn Be Gone!" program, which provides rebates to households to replace their lawns with more water-efficient native plants. But its primary goals, its website states, are to ensure a reliable water supply, high quality water and a fair price.
Keith recently wrote a piece on Medium about additional efforts to conserve water that BAWSCA takes, accessible here. Other programs include rebate offerings for rain water barrels and high-efficiency toilets.
Legally, Irizarry said, the county is required to reject a ballot designation in a few circumstances – like if someone says he or she is an incumbent but really isn't.
In this situation, though, the county Elections Office doesn't have the authority to reject the designation and would have to take the candidate to court, he said.
"We were not provided information that would warrant that action, and we do not conduct background investigations or inquiries into candidates' lives," he said. "When a candidate files to run for office and selects their designation, they do so with the understanding that false information they provide would be considered perjury. Absent information to the contrary, we assume the truthfulness of the information provided by the candidate."