The dynamic at Tuesday’s meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors at times resembled a delicate hostage negotiation as Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez delivered a list of conditions she’d need to see met before completing a document the county needs in order to update its payroll software.
Since before her election in 2018, Paz Dominguez has repeatedly said that her office is understaffed and overworked. She has also argued against the county’s decision in March to outsource payroll services to ADP, LLC, the country’s most successful provider of human resources management software and services.
Paz Dominguez says the county would save taxpayer money by keeping those services in-house, and has advocated for moving the payroll division back under her jurisdiction. It was transferred to the Human Resources Department in the fall of 2018 while Paz Dominguez was on maternity leave.
Today’s showdown culminated with a unanimous board vote to proceed with the transition to ADP, and while an attempt was made to satisfy the conditions the Auditor-Controller had laid out, Paz Dominguez’s post-meeting comments to the Outpost suggest that the conflict remains unresolved.
Here’s a recap of what happened:
Human Resources Director Linda Le, who was partway through her 90th day on the job, began the staff report on this topic with a brief historical overview, reminding the board that last fall the county was “experiencing extreme payroll and organizational challenges.” The following March, the board unanimously voted to hire ADP, and the transition to that company’s management system has been in progress ever since.
Le said the new payroll system would be highly automated and efficient, eliminating some duplication of efforts and wasted staff time.
Project Manager Dr. Jeremy Clark took over and gave a more lengthy presentation, and he started by noting the uniqueness of being positioned between an elected Board of Supervisors and and elected Auditor-Controller who are, at least to some extent, at odds.
“I’ve managed to cultivate a very positive relationship [with Paz Dominguez],” Clark said, adding that it’s been “largely a pleasure working with her.” He vowed to stick to the facts in his presentation, which culminated in an endorsement of the board’s decision in March.
“I maintain that ADP was the right choice,” Clark said, and he described the company as industry pioneers whose payroll services move so much money around that the U.S. Treasury considers it part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
As for the conflict with Paz Dominguez, Clark described her role as critical and said, “We undertook every effort to involve the Auditor-Controller in this initiative. I just want to make that clear.”
The holdup at this point is an Excel spreadsheet that everyone needs Paz Dominguez to complete. Called the General Ledger Mapping Document, it’s a complicated list of objects and codes that functions sort of like a decoder ring. This one document is the key for calculating and issuing paychecks to employees on the county payroll, all of whom are divided into different bargaining units, each with its own set of rules.
After giving a screen-share presentation of ADP’s software, plus some information from two ADP reps who had Zoomed into the meeting, Clark said his team has reached a point where “we really do need completion of a General Ledger Mapping Document” in order to meet the go-live target date of January 1, 2021. “From the outside it can look like a combative issue,” he said, “but I hold Karen Paz Dominguez in high regard and would welcome her participation at any point in time.”
Second District Supervisor and Board Chair Estelle Fennell then invited Paz Dominguez to say her piece. Taking a deep breath, Paz Dominguez said the agenda item came as news to her when it was released on Friday, and she spent all weekend processing, gathering input and seeking guidance.
“There’s emotion involved, and I don’t want emotion to be what drives the conversation,” she said, asking for patience if she needed to pause for breaths.
The county’s payroll situation is a win-win for her personally, she said. If the county continues its transition to ADP then she won’t have to deal with payroll problems anymore. If, on the other hand, the county follows her advice and keeps payroll in-house, then it can invest more money in training and software.
But it’s not about how she might benefit personally, Paz Dominguez said; it’s about taxpayers, and she maintained that it would be a waste of taxpayer money to hire ADP when the county has all the software it needs already.
As in conversations with the Outpost and her own posts on social media, Paz Dominguez took issue with the wording of the staff report — specifically, the recommendation that the board “direct” her to complete the General Ledger Mapping Document and participate in the ADP implementation process. As an independently elected official, she said, the auditor-controller cannot be given orders by the board.
“It’s difficult to reconcile how the public gets a say if the board directs my actions,” she said. “Ask” or “request” would be more appropriate.
Every action she takes is guided by government codes, she said, and there’s no form saying an auditor-controller must participate in another department’s outsourcing endeavor.
“If your board decides the best choice is to go to ADP, I have a decision to make,” she said. “I can let you all go … and hope it all ends well, or I can help.” She recognized that none of the consultants they’ve hired have the specific expertise that’s being requested of her, and that her refusal to help might lead to bigger problems down the road.
“Having said that, I am willing to assist under some conditions,” Paz Dominguez said. Those conditions are listed as bullet points below.
- Change text in the staff report containing “misstatements” that “cause damage to the credibility and reputation of the Auditor-Controller.
The sentence she objected to most strongly was this one: “It was not until the initial committee identified ADP as best positioned to meet the county’s specific organizational needs — and that the committee would be moving forward with a recommendation of ADP to department heads — that the A-C began to withdraw from the process.”
“This is not true,” Paz Dominguez said. She also disputed the report’s narrative describing interactions with her, and she offered several explanations and contradictions.
- Change the timeline in the staff report.
Again, she argued that the information was inaccurate and should be stricken from the official county record.
- Give her a seat on the executive sponsorship committee overseeing the ADP transition.
“It’s clear that I’m a payroll expert [and a] General Ledger expert,” she said, noting that the committee currently doesn’t have either. “You will need someone with relevant expertise on that committee.”
- Allocate more resources to the Auditor-Controller’s office.
As noted above, Paz Dominguez has long argued that her office is understaffed and overworked. “I may be one person, but I am covering the tasks of three different positions,” she said today. Previous auditor-controllers had two assistant A-Cs and an executive secretary. She has only one assistant A-C.
“I am three different people in one,” she said. “If you are going to pull me away from my team, you need to make sure they have tools and the resources to be successful.”
Once Paz Dominguez’s ultimatum had been delivered, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson asked Le and Clark for their personal opinions on the matter. Le said the county currently has numerous complex systems that don’t integrate well together and it is her “sincere hope” that the board move forward with ADP. Clark agreed, saying Paz Dominguez’s argument — that the county should make do with the software it’s had for years — “is a difficult hill to climb. That’s a difficult argument to make.”
Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass asked staff to address Paz Dominguez’s argument that hiring ADP would waste taxpayer money.
ADP’s services are slated to cost the county $459,000 per year. One of the company reps on hand said part of the value comes from reducing the county’s exposure to “risk and liability,” and that savings would be realized by “giving bandwidth back to the Auditor-Controller.”
Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen said hiring ADP would also free up staff in the IT and Human Resources departments — and likely in the Auditor-Controller’s office, too.
Two other department heads chimed in, voicing support for continuing with ADP. Health and Human Resources Director Connie Beck said the county spent years transitioning to the current payroll system, which has been “super problematic.”
And Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew, who is serving on the executive team overseeing the ADP project, said, “I fully support it going forward for the sake of us managing our resources as best we can.” A consensus decision was reached in March, when the board chose to go in this direction, he said.
“Now we are far along in this process,” he continued. “Whether there will be direct savings to taxpayers now, I don’t know. But I do know that there’s a lot of staff time being expended now for things that are not moving the county forward efficiently and effectively.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn agreed that the decision had already been made in March, adding, “I haven’t heard anything that’s gonna change my mind.” He made a motion to accept staff’s recommendations, including the call to “direct” Paz Dominguez.
Bass seconded the motion.
Wilson then spoke up regarding Paz Dominguez’s complaints about the accuracy of the staff report, saying her condition of modifying the document through an amendment wouldn’t bother him. He went on to suggest trying to meet her other conditions as well, including her inclusion on the executive sponsorship committee and the allocation of more resources to her department. And he suggested changing “direct” to “request” in the staff report.
Bohn made a crack about adding a “Mother, may I?” in there, but Bass said those changes would be fine with her.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he appreciated Wilson’s comments and suggestions.
“What I didn’t appreciate, Supervisor Bohn … and I’m not sure you realize when you’re doing that — when you say things like “Mother, may I?” it really puts down what Karen was saying. She’s just asking for that respect. I don’t know if you even realize — .”
Bohn interjected, “I realize everything I do and a lot of things you do.”
Madrone then chastised him for interrupting and said he was “just offering an observation that might be helpful.”
Bohn later apologized for his “outburst,” but he took issue with the idea of changing “direct” to “request,” saying “direct” is common terminology, not derogatory, and to “make sure that word is stricken from anything we do” would be “ridiculous.”
He wound up withdrawing his motion and suggested one of his colleagues make a new one and “see where it goes.”
Regardless, it seemed like consensus might still be achievable. Fennell and Bass asked Paz Dominguez to explain a bit more about what resources she would need to complete the General Ledger Mapping Document, a task she described as very labor intensive. She suggested that $250,000 recently awarded to outside consultants could be re-appropriated to her department, or, alternatively, some existing county employees could be sent to her office on a contract basis.
Ultimately, though, she was holding firm on her list of demands. “I am willing to help under these conditions,” she said. “Without these considerations, I will have to decline. I don’t want to do that, but I am at capacity without additional help.”
Wilson made a motion to accept staff recommendations while at least partially meeting Paz Dominguez’s conditions: The most objectionable sentence would be stricken (though it will remain in today’s version of the agenda item); Paz Dominguez would be included on the executive sponsorship committee; and the Chief Administrative Office will come back at a future meeting with information about what resources are available to help Paz Dominguez complete the General Ledger Mapping Document.
The word “direct” was left in.
The motion passed unanimously. However, Paz Dominguez was not appeased by this result. Asked after the meeting if she would help with the transition to ADP, she sent along some thoughts via text:
I appreciate that the board took my department into consideration. I could tell that it made some of them uncomfortable and I am grateful that they extended this gesture.
While I still believe that we already have the infrastructure to run payroll in house, I understand that the board has decided to continue with ADP.
In response to the claims that the board can direct the actions of elected officials, I vehemently disagree. Every time they’ve “directed” the department before was procedural in nature as those were already the duties of the office to perform. Today’s item was different because what they wanted to “direct” was outside of the Auditor-Controller’s duties.
I am forever grateful for Supervisor Madrone’s advocacy against misogynistic speech and am impressed with his composure and poise. I have much to learn from him.
I am grateful to Supervisor Wilson for his efforts to understand and consider the needs of the Auditor-Controller department and I look forward to collaboration to move the County forward through this new endeavor.
I’m not moving forward until I get the resources because I need the resources to move forward.
I’m ignoring the “direction” because they can’t direct me to perform outside of my duties. I am honoring their request because in spite of Bohn’s dismissive outbursts, I do believe the other supervisors were willing to meet me halfway on it. Still, can’t move until I have the resources. I’m not going to abandon my team.
We asked for clarification about how the “direction” differs from the request, and she responded that “request” referred to the direction Wilson and Madrone tried to give.
But weren’t the direction and the request the same thing in the end? Paz Dominguez responded:
Well, actually, it shouldn’t have been a request or a direction to me about anything. The recommendation should have been “provide resources to the A-C so that she can assist.” Then they could have referenced their agenda item from April wherein they told the board I was unavailable to help. Resources would make me available.
The recommendation as presented did nothing more than perpetuate the division and othering of me.