New Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni is planning to run the clerk’s office more efficiently and with a gentler touch than her predecessor, Sally Padilla, who retired from office amidst controversy sparked by the handling of the 2012 election.
Garbagni, a soft-spoken, diminutive woman, seems in some ways to be the polar opposite of the fiery Padilla, who wasn’t afraid of directly challenging accusations that she was to blame for an Election Day plagued by hours-long waits at the polls.
“It’ll be different, I’m sure, because we’re two totally different people,“ Garbagni said of how she will direct the county clerk’s office. The county clerk oversees the Bureau of Elections and handles public records, such as real estate documents, marriage licenses and power of attorney.
Since being hired in 1974 by the then-county clerk after bussing her table at a restaurant, Garbagni has worked in the clerk’s office off and on for more than three decades. Most recently she served as Padilla’s chief deputy.
One of the ways in which Garbagni said she differs from Padilla is “I’m not old school.”
A modern mindset has prompted Garbagni to implement a public website so people can search for documents without having to visit the county clerk’s office as they do now. She also plans to have real estate documents electronically recorded.
Another area she hopes to tweak is the election process. She said she’ll be looking to the county commission for help in managing the next election — specifically, hiring poll workers (“finding poll workers is like pulling teeth”) and canvassing the election.
“I welcome the help,” Garbagni said. In an attempt to prevent the long lines at the polls from happening again, the commission in December passed a resolution requiring the county clerk, among other things, to show the commission the analysis used to determine the voting method for each precinct and the calculations for the projected wait times per voter on Election Day.
“We have not had the county commission come and help us – it’s been years,” Garbagni said. “They used to help with canvassing. From one year to another, they just kind of sat in the back and let us run the election.”
Garbagni said having the commission be more involved in the election could prevent some of the concerns the commission expressed last year.
“That way (the commission) can see the process and not have questions on their mind: ‘How did they arrive at this number?’” Garbagni said. “This way they’ll be there to see it and know exactly what the process is and not point fingers and accuse people of fraud or errors.”
Garbagni said she doesn’t feel the clerk’s office was to blame for the long lines, but that they were due to lack of funding from the New Mexico Secretary of State that prevented the county from paying for enough ballot machines at Rio Rancho voting convenience centers.
It will be up to the commission to approve the types of polling locations, but Garbagni wants to do away with using voting convenience centers.
“I would rather go back to having each precinct have its own polling place,” Garbagni said.
The long lines at the polls resulted in the accuracy of the vote being challenged by some Republican candidates — including Garbagni’s opponent Paula Papponi. Papponi, along with another candidate, sued Padilla and accused her of “suppressing the vote” and “fraud” in court documents.
A flurry of lawsuits ended with Papponi asking to be declared the winner of the election. The suit was eventually dropped.
Garbagni said she wasn’t worried about the ultimate outcome in her race for county clerk.
“If I won, it was excellent … I would have my job for another four years. If I didn’t, I was going to be able to stay home and enjoy my grandkids,” said Garbagni, who is married with a daughter and two grandchildren.
That equilibrium seems evident as Garbagni talks about her relationship with the former county clerk – and unexpectedly losing her job in 2010 as Padilla’s chief deputy.
“Sally and I just parted — I really don’t know, it’s still a mystery to me and I never asked her why,” Garbagni said of returning to work from vacation to find she was being fired. “She just terminated my employment with her.”
Garbagni found a job working for the housing department in the town of Bernalillo. While working at the housing department, she began her campaign to run for county clerk.
When the department was taken over in the middle of the election by the government, Garbagni was told her new status as a federal employee meant she would have to abandon the race or lose her job.
But Garbagni said she couldn’t imagine dropping out of the race.
“I said, ‘I can’t give the Republican a free ride,’” Garbagni said. “There’s no way; I’ve got to continue my campaign.’”
Out of a job, Garbagni called her former employer at the clerk’s office. In July of 2012, Padilla, who supported Garbagni’s campaign, hired her back as chief deputy.
Now that she’s county clerk, Garbagni said she thinks she’ll manage those working under her differently than Padilla did.
“I’m probably going to be a little bit more lenient, I think, than she was,” Garbagni said. “Sally was hard with the employees … that’s how she operated. That was her.”
Garbagni said she plans to have an open door to the public.
“They’re the ones that got me into office.”