Screenshot from Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Karen Paz Dominguez has certainly challenged the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and the County Administrative Officer before. She did nearly two years ago, as assistant auditor-controller, sounding an alarm by claiming the department was seriously understaffed.

Today, in her capacity as the county’s elected auditor-controller, she challenged them again, urging the board to change a number of proposed responses to a Civil Grand Jury report that addresses her department and the rest of the county’s fiscal management procedures. 

The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury, an independent judicial body comprised of 19 volunteer community members charged with watchdog duties over local governments, released its latest batch of reports in July.

The five reports this year examined a range of issues, including the county’s work on addressing homelessness, its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), community access to mental health services and criminalization of the homeless.

The fifth report, titled “The Mis-Fortunes of Humboldt County” [click here for a pdf], concerned allegations that the Auditor-Controller’s Office was severely understaffed and mismanaged in a way that left the county vulnerable to potential fraud. 

As the report notes, these allegations were brought forward by Paz Dominguez herself back in 2017, and they’ve been the subject of two independent consultants’ reports since then.

The Grand Jury report includes 16 findings and 16 recommendations. The No. 1 recommendation was that “the Board of Supervisors ensure that the Auditor-Controller’s Office is fully funded so that the staffing and functions of the office can be fulfilled with due diligence.”

Among the findings is this: “There is a high risk of fraud in a number of County departments due to their poor cash handling policies and procedures, improper accounting, and lack of accountability.” (We reported on this back in July.)

The Grand Jury asked for formal responses to this report from a number of quarters, including the Department of Public Works, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office, the Auditor-Controller’s Office, the County Administrative Officer (CAO) and the Board of Supervisors. 

Before getting to this report, which proved to be the most-discussed of the day, Neftali Rubio-Mills, a senior administrative analyst with the CAO’s office, gave the board a quick rundown of staff’s recommended responses to the other four Grand Jury reports. (More on that below.)

For the report on the Auditor-Controller’s Office, Deputy County Administrative Officer Sean Quincey presented the proposed “combined response from all county departments,” though, as he later clarified to the Outpost, this proposal didn’t aim to speak for the independently elected offices of the treasurer-tax collector or the auditor-controller. 

The proposed responses were mixed — neither a rebuke of the report’s findings and recommendations nor a complete agreement. It called for agreement with four of the Grand Jury’s 16 findings, partial agreement with another nine of them and disagreement with the remaining three. The latter category included disagreement with the finding that there’s a “high risk of fraud” in the county on the grounds that there are many safeguards in place.

As for the Grand Jury’s recommendations, the proposed response was that five have already been implemented, two are in the process of being implemented, one requires further analysis and the remaining three will not be implemented. 

Neither Paz Dominguez nor Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew were invited to today’s meeting to address their own responses to the Grand Jury, which were prepared separately. Nor did they ask for such an audience, by all appearances. But when the board opened the matter up for public comment, Paz Dominguez approached the lectern.

She started by asking Board Chair Rex Bohn to waive the standard three-minute time limit on public comments since she’s an elected county official, and while he didn’t appear especially happy about it, he granted the request. 

Paz Dominguez then proceeded to suggest a series of edits to the county’s proposed responses, saying they weren’t inaccurate, per se, but that she has a different perspective. And since this report concerns her office, she felt she ought to weigh in. 

“I feel confident in saying I know best what the Auditor-Controller department needs,” she said.

One of her points of contention concerned finding No. 12 in the Grand Jury’s report: “The Auditor-Controller’s Office lacks the staff to provide and implement training plans for its employees.”

The proposed county response was to disagree with the finding, in part because the county already added a full-time accountant-auditor to the department and bumped up a part-time employee to full-time. The county also allocated money to improve technology, buy new office furniture and provide coaching and training in the department.

Paz Dominguez said that was insufficient. “Purchasing computers and furniture and cables does not equal hiring staff to operate [those computers],” she said. She also said the additional staffing is not sufficient for her department to “fulfill the needs of the county” or to meet the expectations people have of them.

“I’m not here to spend all the county’s money,” she said. “When I come request extra staff it’s because we desperately need it.”

In all, Paz Dominguez suggested that the county change its responses to five of the Grand Jury’s findings and at last two of its recommendations.

She concluded by saying, “In order to avoid us having disputing responses, I propose those edits be made.”

When the matter went back to the board for discussion, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he hadn’t had enough time to review all the proposed responses, let alone the edits Paz Dominguez was requesting. 

“Frankly, it’s overwhelming,” he said, and he quickly made a motion to continue deliberations until next week’s meeting for the report concerning the Auditor-Controller’s Office. 

Both Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass and Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell pushed back a bit. 

“We got the reports quite a while ago,” Bass said. “I feel I had enough time for most of them.”

“Yeah, I had enough time,” Fennell said. “I will say I didn’t have enough sleep.”

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he supported Madrone’s suggestion of bringing the one Grand Jury report back next week to allow for more deliberation. He disagreed with at least one of Paz Dominguez’s recommendations. She had suggested that the county say it “partially agrees” with the finding that there’s a “high risk of fraud.”

“You can’t partially agree that there’s a high risk of fraud,” he said. Either the risk is high or it isn’t. “Is there a risk? Yes. That’s why we have these systems in place,” Wilson said.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to do bring that report back for further discussion next week, despite some reservations from Bohn and Fennell. And it approved the proposed responses to the other four Grand Jury reports, with two minor changes to the language of responses to the report on homelessness, which is titled, “Like, Home? There’s No Place.” [Click here to download a pdf of that report.]

One of the recommendations in that report was that the board should clarify the responsibilities of the Humboldt Trust Fund and Homelessness Solutions Committee, which is a joint effort between the county and the city. The proposed response was that the suggestion isn’t warranted, but Madrone disagreed, noting that several members of the group have expressed concerns about how it’s functioning. His motion called for changing that response to, “will be implemented,” and the rest of the board agreed.

The other minor change came in the proposed response to the Grand Jury recommendation that the board worth with the Eureka City Council to identify locations for supervised safe parking programs and then implement them. The proposed response was, “This recommendation requires further analysis.” Madrone moved that it be changed to, “This needs to be investigated and implemented.” Again, the rest of the board agreed.

Over the course of the discussion, all five supervisors expressed their appreciation for the work of the Grand Jury members. 

Below you can download and read all five of the board’s responses to the five Civil Grand Jury reports for 2018-19.

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