Study up!

Have you looked at your sample ballot yet? Crazy, right? That thing’s like an SAT practice test — just a whole mess of bewildering word problems, mostly boring but potentially important for the future.

Eureka voters, for example, are being asked to select from 14 candidates for six positions, ranging from two city council spots to the big kahuna: POTUS. Then we have two city measures, five county measures and 17 state measures, including questions about plastic bags, cigarettes, condom usage in pornography and the death penalty. Oh yeah, and that one about legalizing marijuana.

It’s tempting to put off studying until the last minute or, hell, just wing it on test day. But the Outpost has a better option. Over the coming days and weeks we’ll be bringing you handy little explainers on some of the more confusing and/or obscure ballot measures, starting today with a look at Humboldt County measures Q and R.

What are they?

Measure Q asks voters whether two county positions should be consolidated into one. Currently our county government employs both an auditor-controller (Joe Mellett) and a treasurer-tax collector (John Bartholomew). Both positions are elected by voters. If Measure Q passes those jobs would be eliminated and the two departments would get consolidated into a single Office of Director of Finance, overseen (logically enough) by a director of finance. This new position would be born once Mellett and Bartholomew’s current terms are up, on Jan. 7, 2019.

Measure R is tied to Measure Q. If Q passes, voters get to decide whether the director of finance should be appointed or elected. Of course, If Q fails, R becomes moot.

What are the arguments for and against?

Efficiency! That’s the rallying cry for the pro-Q camp. Combining these two small departments (one with 13 employees, the other with eight) would allow staff to do more with less, according to the “Yes on Q” ballot argument, which is signed by former Humboldt County Chief Administrative Officer Loretta Sands (née Nicklaus) and her husband, James Sands. 

The consolidation proposal was originally brought to the Board of Supervisors in February and approved for the ballot in May. At that May meeting current CAO Amy Nilsen told the board that a consolidated Department of Finance would offer more opportunities for employee cross-training, provide better backup coverage for staff and facilitate succession planning.

Who’s against these props? The people it would most affect — namely Auditor-Controller Joe Mellett and Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew. They, along with the people who held those jobs before them and retired County Clerk-Recorder Carolyn Crnich, wrote the “No on Q” ballot argument. “The skills and experience needed for competence by both Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector are significantly different from one another and not easily acquired,” their argument states.

They also note that Measure Q would create a “highly compensated” management position without addressing staffing shortages in the lower positions “that perform the most service to the public.” This type of consolidation may work in populous, wealthy counties, they say, but “in smaller rural counties it simply does not provide any significant benefit.”

As for Measure R, the “No on Q” folks advocate for a “Yes” vote, which would make the director of finance an elected position rather than one appointed by supervisors. They argue that if voters do approve Q (against their advice) then “it behooves citizens” to at least make the position elected, which would ensure independent decision-making and accountability. 

There is no formal argument against Measure R.

What else should we know?

In her May 10 presentation to the Board of Supervisors, CAO Amy Nilsen noted that she’d reached out to the CAOs in Kings and Yolo counties. Those two counties, which are rural and have about as many people as Humboldt, have both consolidated their auditor-controller and treasurer-tax collector departments as proposed by Measure Q, and the CAOs of those counties told Nilsen that they’re glad they did so.

The Outpost also reached out to those counties and learned there are some key differences between their situations and ours. For one thing, there was no political opposition in the other two counties. For another, the consolidations there followed retirements of county officials who otherwise would have been consolidated right out of a job.

Kings County CAO Larry Spikes said his county’s consolidation happened 14 years ago, and it was prompted by the retirement of their auditor-controller. That person supported the merging of the two departments, as did the treasurer-tax collector, who wound up in the new position of director of finance. “We got the moons aligned just right,” Spikes said.

In Yolo County the consolidation happened back in 2007, and the matter didn’t even go before voters. Howard Newens, who had been elected auditor-controller in 2002, was simply appointed to the newly created position of chief financial officer by the Board of Supervisors. That consolidation had twice been rejected by voters — in the 1980s and 1990s, Newens told the Outpost — but the retirement of the treasurer-tax collector gave the board legal authority to bypass voters.

Newens believes the results have been positive. “Efficiency is a noticeable benefit,” he said. Whereas there used to be two groups of staff working independently there’s now a single group, with everyone sharing information, working collaboratively and reporting to Newens. And by having his position appointed rather than elected, Newens said, the county is better able to do long-term financial planning, looking 10-15 years ahead, which is important since California counties have been forced to become more self-reliant in the face of declining state funding.

Spikes agreed with Newens that it makes sense to have a finance director appointed rather than elected. “These are professional positions,” he said. “Not to suggest you can’t elect people who are qualified,” he added. “I just think it’s an easier deal for the board to appoint somebody. That’s the way it works here.”

Having an appointed official also means the board can fire the finance director if he or she isn’t performing the job to their satisfaction. “That has in fact happened,” Spikes said, “twice over the years.”

But he acknowledged that Humboldt County’s situation is different. The political opposition here may be a tough hurdle to clear. “It’s a difficult task, in my opinion, to combine elected offices over the objections of the elected officials in those offices,” Spike said.