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Who will count Hughson ballots?

This much is certain: Voters in Hughson will take to the polls in a recall election of three councilmen Aug. 24.

What's not known: How they'll vote, who will count the ballots and who's going to pay for it.

The Hughson City Council on Monday night voted to hold the recall election of Councilmen Thom Crowder, Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley. But those three voted against setting aside $23,000 to pay the Stanislaus County elections office to conduct it.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode," Stanislaus County Clerk-Recorder Lee Lundrigan said Tuesday.

Elections code allows the city to run its own elections or contract with a certified private company to do so.

"They call the election and who is going to run the election," said Lundrigan, referring to the Hughson council. "Is it going to be the city clerk?"

In addition to printing and sending ballots, whoever oversees the election has to certify that all the candidates are qualified to run, and then handle the election itself.

"It's not an overnight thing," Lundrigan said.

The recall drive targeted Crowder, Humphreys and Manley after a Stanislaus County civil grand jury found they conspired to fire City Manager Joe Donabed and should be removed from office. Donabed has since been fired.

Voters will be asked to answer two questions: whether the three should be removed and who should replace them. Candidates can file May 10 through June 4.

Humphreys, who cited concerns about the cost of the election during the council meeting, would not comment Tuesday. Manley suggested that each of the 1,000 people who signed the recall petitions could pitch in $23 to pay for the election.

Crowder said he thinks the Citizens for Better City Government, which launched the recall campaign, should withdraw it.

"I'm concerned about the money it's going to cost the city," he said. "And the outcome of the election I don't think you're going to be pleased with."

Councilman Matt Beekman said trying to run the election at the city level would be more expensive than asking the county to do it. He asked staff to analyze potential costs and bring a report to the next council meeting.

"The assumption is that by the city taking over, we're going to be able to do it on the cheap. That's a huge assumption," he said.

Some cities use other services for elections. Modesto, for instance, hires an independent company, Martin and Chapman, to conduct runoff elections in City Council races. Lundrigan said that's because the election dates are so close — her office is still wrapping up the general election while the runoff gets under way. Also, runoff candidates have been vetted and those elections can be run by mail.

The county will have to be involved in some manner because the elections office keeps voter signatures and addresses on hand; whoever tabulates the ballots will need to verify signatures.

"They will have to come to us and pay us something," Lundrigan said. "The code section is very clear that we shall be reimbursed for the services provided."

Whatever option the city selects — running the election on its own, hiring someone else or asking the county to do so — it's going to come at a cost.

"They have those different options," Lundrigan said. "But (after Monday night's vote), there's no money. It doesn't matter who is asked to do it — it's going to cost something."

Hughson has another problem: perception. With the majority of the City Council targeted in a recall election, the city manager ousted and the public works director facing felony computer hacking charges, the reputation of Stanislaus County's smallest city has suffered recently.

"We're an independent entity. When we come out and certify the election as complete ... we tend to be believed," Lundrigan said. "With the city holding its own election with issues over its head, it might have some difficulties in that regard."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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