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Who is Thomas Toller, Shasta County's newly-appointed clerk?

Thomas Toller was appointed the new Shasta County clerk and registrar of voters by the county's board of supervisors on Wednesday.
Roman Battaglia
/
JPR
Thomas Toller was appointed the new Shasta County clerk and registrar of voters by the county's board of supervisors on June 19.

With just five months left until the November presidential election, a new clerk has been appointed to oversee voting in Shasta County. With no prior experience, they’ll have a lot of catching up to do.

County supervisors picked Thomas Toller as the new county clerk in a 3-2 vote on June 19.

Now semi-retired, Toller said during his public interview that he spent six years in a monastery and studied theology before becoming a lawyer.

“I think like a lawyer, and I think that can bring a good skill set to this job, because it is so heavily dependent on codes and regulations,” he said.

Toller spent much of his legal career as a deputy district attorney in Shasta County, most recently from 2012 to 2017.

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors in Redding, California, June, 2024.
Roman Battaglia
/
JPR News
The Shasta County Board of Supervisors in Redding, California, June, 2024.

Now he will lead a department that’s faced attacks by election deniers amid growing political divisiveness in recent years.

“I am not by nature a micromanager,” Toller said about his leadership style. “But I am someone who will monitor progress and definitely expect accountability.”

Toller doesn’t have much experience with elections, other than helping in a past campaign for district attorney.

But, when asked about the county’s elections system, Toller said he would support a controversial move to hand-count all ballots.

“It was good enough for years and years,” he said. “And I think it's a system that's capable of being implemented, and observed for transparency and fairness.”

Hand counting ballots has been shown to be more time-consuming, more expensive and less accurate than using machines. Shasta County supervisors attempted to hand-count elections last year, but their efforts were thwarted by a new state law banning the practice in nearly all elections.

How often are clerks chosen without prior experience in elections?

Two out of the eleven clerks in nearby counties came into the position without a background in elections. Rochelle Long, who had election experience before being hired as Klamath County’s clerk, said elections are very difficult to run even with many years under your belt. Long said there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that the public isn’t aware of.

“The former clerk used to say, ‘We look like we’re ducks floating on water, and underneath we’re paddling like hell,’” she said.

Three out of the 12 nearby counties now have clerks without prior experience working in elections.
Roman Battaglia
/
JPR News
Three out of the 12 nearby counties now have clerks without prior experience working in elections.

Dan Loomis is the Douglas County clerk and was also appointed without a background in elections. He said that an inexperienced head of elections will need a lot of support from staff, especially when there’s only five months until the next presidential election.

“Empower those folks that are in the office that work for you,” said Loomis. “Believe that they want to succeed just as much as you want to succeed.”

Institutional candidate snubbed

The two county supervisors who voted against appointing Toller wanted instead to pick Joanna Francescut, the assistant county clerk with 16 years of experience. She’s been running the office for months after the retirement of Cathy Darling Allen.

Francescut said this interview process was difficult, but she presented the best version of herself.

“Honestly, I feel at peace,” Francescut said. “Because I know that my integrity, my leadership style and how I conduct myself meets my standards.”

A close up shot of a women with long blond-brown hair outside looking to the left
Roman Battaglia
/
JPR News
Joanna Francescut before her interview for county clerk, June 19, 2024

During her interview, Francescut spoke about the many sacrifices she’s made for this position. She says her youngest child was due on January 13, 2012. But, they ended up being born a few days earlier on January 8, during a special election.

“Planning my family, planning vacations, life events around elections, it's not an easy task,” Francescut said. “It's a sacrifice my family takes every single day just so I can serve.”

The Shasta County clerk isn’t usually appointed by supervisors. They’re elected by residents. The former Clerk, Cathy Darling Allen, was elected five times since 2004. Two years ago, she won almost 70% of the vote, a bigger margin than any other local candidate.

California state law doesn’t allow for calling a special election to fill vacant elected positions, other than county supervisors and superior court judges.

Shasta County Supervisor Board Chair Kevin Crye, June 19, 2024
Roman Battaglia
/
JPR News
Shasta County Supervisor Board Chair Kevin Crye, June 19, 2024

Toller was the first choice of only one supervisor, Board Chair Kevin Crye.

Crye said he believes Toller will be able to stand up to criticism.

“I believe there is one person, that would be Tom Toller, that would be able to come in with a fresh set of eyes and be steadfast in returning – possibly for the first time ever anywhere in the last four years – some level of transparency and communication,” said Crye.

It was a highly visible display of political maneuvering that led to Toller’s appointment. Crye said if Toller wasn’t chosen, then he would vote for Francescut. Supervisors Patrick Jones and Chris Kelstrom then joined him in appointing Toller, despite acknowledging their favorite choice was a third candidate, Clint Curtis.

"Whatever happens today is going to have far reaching ripple effects on the county"

Supervisor Mary Rickert, one of the two dissenting votes, said she’s worried that someone so inexperienced will be unable to successfully pull off an election that’s rapidly approaching. She told the other supervisors that it’ll be their fault if something goes wrong.

“This is your legacy,” she said. “And this is where you're bringing Shasta County, and whatever happens today is going to have far reaching ripple effects on the county and if our voters will be disenfranchised, ultimately.”

Toller said he’ll be consulting with every member of the election staff to ensure a smooth transition. That includes working alongside Francescut, who is still committed to one day becoming the next county clerk. That position will be up for election in two years.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.