After only 14 months on the job, Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Barry Garner has been fired for what he calls "a misunderstanding with a co-worker."
And in an interview with the Mercury News Thursday night, Garner acknowledged that it's the second time in two years the veteran elections director has been forced to resign under such circumstances.
An article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October about the Fulton County Elections Board, where Garner had served as Director of Registration and Elections for two years before accepting the Santa Clara County job in November 2011, reported that he'd been accused of sexual harassment there.
On Thursday, that newspaper's ongoing probe into that elections office included Garner's name in a recap of "recent Fulton elections embarrassments." While Garner was lauded for "making major improvements in the department," the story stated that an internal county document revealed that "he had admitted to inappropriate conduct in a sexual harassment investigation."
Reached by telephone at his Morgan Hill home, Garner said he had done nothing wrong as Santa Clara County's elections chief, but that after a talk with County Executive Jeff Smith last week, "we decided to go in different directions."
Smith would only confirm that Garner's last day was Friday, Jan. 25 -- something county officials never mentioned at the time and first hinted at with Thursday's news release announcing the appointment of Garner's interim replacement, a statement that declined to mention him.
"I cannot tell you the details of why he is no longer working for the county because it's a personnel matter," said Smith, who named Shannon Bushey, Assistant Registrar of Voters, to be Interim Registrar, effective immediately.
Smith said Bushey, a 22-year-veteran with the county -- 17 of them with the Registrar of Voters office -- "knows the office backwards and forwards, and we expect she will do a good job with the office."
He said the county will launch a search for a new registrar "at the appropriate time," and Bushey said she will apply.
Garner's fall from grace stunned many.
The 45-year-old veteran elections official from Georgia was selected to replace former registrar of voters Jesse Durazo, who retired in July 2011, after a nine-year reign marked by a series of mishaps.
Since starting his $150,519 job in December 2011, Garner successfully coordinated last year's primary and general elections with nary a glitch, unlike his predecssor, whose tenure included delayed counting of absentee ballots in 2004; running out of Democrat ballots in the 2008 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and smudges on the absentee ballots in 2010.
Garner was determined to make changes and improve the reputation of the registrar's office. By last fall, he had developed a new, free mobile app for the iPhone/iPad and Android platforms to help voters access a variety of easy-to-use features on the office's website.
But sources told this newspaper a female employee at the registrar's office reported feeling uncomfortable with Garner's attention in September. He was notified by his colleagues to stop, sources said, but by December, the woman had reported to a manager that Garner had sent her an inappropriate text message.
"It's absolutely 100 percent false," Garner said.
Garner said he could not comment further on what precipitated his departure. He said he had never been accused of inappropriate behavior before Fulton County, which he characterized as an "unfair allegation" by another female employee, "a person I thought was a good friend of mine."
Looking back, he said, he may have said some things in Fulton County that he "should not have said -- it was banter back and forth." But when the woman's division didn't perform well, and he was told to discipline her, he said she filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.
Garner said his boss there told him he would be temporarily suspended but wouldn't lose his job over the matter. However, the county manager disagreed, and both he and Garner decided the workplace had become too toxic for him to continue working there.
Garner said he never mentioned the incident to Smith or other county officials when he was being interviewed for the job here and did not know if his boss had alerted them.
But when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter contacted him last fall to tell him he would be including the information about the sexual harassment allegation in a story, Garner said he alerted Smith, who he said advised him to talk with Acting County Counsel Lori Pegg.
Garner said Pegg warned him not to engage in any such behavior here, or there would be consequences.
"I'm not perfect by any means," said Garner, who is married with two young children. "But I know I did not violate any county rules or laws. I did not harass anybody."
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.