County supervisors, staff and even an outside consultant wanted to make one thing exceedingly clear at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting: The newly created position of Chief Financial Officer will not — repeat, will not — interfere with or supersede the role of Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez.
Following the recommendations of Human Resources Director Linda Le and the outside consulting firm of Macias Gini O’Connell (MGO), the Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 (with Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson absent) to reorganize of the County Administrative Office, creating two new assistant CAO positions.
One of those positions, the assistant CAO/chief operating officer, will be filled by current Assistant CAO Elishia Hayes. Her new role will look much similar to her current one, focusing on countywide operational management, though with the new title and added responsibilities she’ll receive an extra $5,083 in salary and benefits this fiscal year, according to a staff report.
The other new position, assistant CAO/chief financial officer, will be responsible for overseeing and coordinating the county’s budgetary process and financial management activities, serving as the principle advisor to the CAO on financial matters. The county will recruit for candidates to fill this new job.
Introducing this agenda item to the board, Le appeared to anticipate objections from members of the public who’ve become protective of Paz Dominguez. Le said that she and the employees of MGO took “great care” to ensure that there will be no duplication of work between the CFO and the auditor-controller.
This reorganization is part of a broader effort to make “transformational changes” in county management, streamlining some operations and adapting to additional responsibilities, according to the staff report. On December 8, the Board of Supervisors agreed to hire MGO to help perform a staffing study and explore the possibility of creating a CFO position.
Scott Johnson, a partner in the firm, laid out some of the methodology and results of the study in a PowerPoint presentation. The firm looked at 15 “peer county agencies” — meaning counties of similar size and/or complexity to Humboldt — and found that all 15 employ a director of finance or similar classification. And in a poll of all 58 counties in the state, MGO heard back from just over half of them (29), with all respondents reporting that they have a CFO or similar classification, Johnson said.
He, too, took pains to insist that MGO is not proposing a duplication of efforts. Rather, the CFO will oversee financial operations and serve as a liaison to the Auditor-Controller’s Office, he said.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Paz Dominguez told the Outpost that she did reach out to Le ahead of today’s meeting to express some concerns about duplication of efforts, but she was grateful that the board made it clear that duplication shouldn’t happen.
“I’m remaining hopeful that the will of the voters [to maintain an independently elected Auditor-Controller] will be honored and that at the end of all this the county organization as a whole improves together,” she said.
During the public comment period, just one person called in. She did not give her name but accused Le and MGO of attempting to “take over” responsibilities from Paz Dominguez. “It seems like you’re doing your very best to make her quit,” the unidentified woman said. “It’s gross. It’s really ugly. I’m sorry you guys are this way. I really wish you could help [Paz Dominguez] succeed.”
Board Chair Virginia Bass said there were “a lot of inaccuracies” in the woman’s statements, and Le offered an impassioned defense of her own motives as well as the board’s adherence to a strategic plan. “I strive to do public service with integrity and professionalism,” Le said. “I’m so encouraged with the direction of your board.”
She and her staff are in the midst of conducting four operational studies, including one analyzing staffing needs in the Auditor-Controller’s Office. In the coming months, she said, she hopes to bring an action plan to the board outlining steps for a large-scale “functional realignment” of county staff intended to streamline efforts and “move forward in an efficient, effective manner.”
The annual salary and benefit costs of this reorganization in the CAO’s office are expected to total $232,192, according to the staff report.
In other business, Karen Meynell, the county’s code enforcement manager, presented the annual report on the Code Enforcement Unit, which tackles un-permitted cannabis grows, junk vehicles and citizen complaints about public nuisances and code violations.
Meynell explained that the Humboldt Environmental Impact Reduction (HEIR) team uses satellite imagery to look for illegal weed grows and to check the progress of operations that are in the abatement process. She also said that staffing shortages in the unit, a subdivision of the Planning and Building Department, are causing it to fall further and further behind.
“With the staff level as it is, we are constantly getting pulled off of one case to work on another,” she said. “That’s the worst possible way to manage these cases. … Our timelines are meaningless.”
The traditional code enforcement team — as distinguished from the HEIR team — currently has nearly 700 open cases with roughly 450 still unassigned to staff, according to the report.
“There is clearly more work than the current staff can address and there continues to be more cases opened each month than closed,” a staff report notes.
In 2020, the Code Enforcement Unit issued notices — either a “notice to abate nuisance” or a “notice of violation” — regarding 103 new violations, 65 of which were served with law enforcement. Twenty-one of those property owners entered compliance agreements with the county while another 23 are already abated — or close to it, according to the report.
The Code Enforcement Unit also performed an abatement at a junkyard near Dinsmore, on the banks of the Van Duzen River, removing about 400 junk vehicles, 19 drums of hazardous waste and huge truckloads of tires, junk metal and other debris.
After the report, Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell peppered Meynell with questions about the county’s use of high-definition satellite imagery. What exactly are the images used for? she asked.
Meynell said they’re used to stop un-permitted cultivation and provide aerial views of other sites to make sure they’re in compliance, “saving quite a bit of staff time” by eliminating the need to drive out for in-person inspections. The images are also used to see whether junk on a property has been cleaned up, she said.
Planning and Building Director John Ford added that his department employees often use satellite images in lieu of site inspections for building projects.
One angry caller, who also did not give a name, complained that nuisance properties in Southern Humboldt, including a hash lab, are going unaddressed. “That report is delusional,” she said. “You guys are really good at giving yourself good grades. I really wish you could spend more time, have boots on the ground and get a reality picture, not a satellite view. … I’m hoping we can get more help down here.”
Ford replied that while he doesn’t want to say too much, considering the confrontational nature of code enforcement, “there are things we’re definitely working towards [in SoHum].”
According to the staff report, the Code Enforcement Unit collected $983,749 in penalties last year with fee assessments in the amount of $10.9 million, though Ford noted that only a fraction of that will ever be collected.