As Tuesday’s ultra-marathon Board of Supervisors meeting approached its tenth hour, an exasperated Mary Ann Hansen, executive director of First 5 Humboldt, appeared via Zoom.
It was after work hours, and as she addressed the board, urging them to take responsibility for the county’s fiscal management failings and their impact on her organization, the lights in her office kept switching off. Each time the room went dark she would flail her hands in the air to trigger the motion sensor, switching them back on.
First 5 is an independent local government agency established by county ordinance in 2000. It works to meet the needs of the county’s youngest children, and per the terms of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the agency pays the county annual fees to provide various services, including accounting and oversight.
With her back to a brick wall, Hansen said the county’s not living up to its end of the bargain. She explained to the board that for the first time in her agency’s history she had to request an extension from the State Controller’s Office to submit First 5’s year-end audit. Worse, her agency’s own independent auditor had identified a “Significant Deficiency” in First 5’s books.
The cause of this deficiency, she said, quoting from the audit report, was the failure of the county’s Auditor-Controller’s Office to performs its mandated accounting and oversight services.
“This finding is based on the fact that our balances were not posted to our accounts in a timely manner,” Hansen said. “There is nothing subjective about that, nor is it disputable that the books have not been closed in a timely manner.”
Hansen is the latest in a long line of people to voice frustration with Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez. In recent weeks the Fortuna Union High School District, Humboldt County Workforce Development Board and Board of Supervisors have all passed votes of “no confidence” in the A-C, and in response to major delays in financial reporting, including closing the books on previous fiscal years, the State Controller’s Office has launched an investigation into the county’s financial practices and reporting.
Hansen said her agency has become increasingly dependent on grant funding, and this audit finding could put those funds at risk, thereby jeopardizing First 5’s ability to serve young children.
‘Your house in on fire and is threatening my house — and all the services that shelter our children and our most valuable.’ —Mary Ann Hansen
“So this mess affects our audit, our potential to receive grants and our staff time,” Hansen said. Rather than figuring out how to better serve needly families and children during this pandemic, she’s now “spending time talking with you about how your house is on fire and is threatening my house — and all the services that shelter our children and our most vulnerable.”
Following her statements, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who has frequently been at odds with Paz Dominguez, said he considers First 5 “the most important thing we do as a board” and questioned how things got to this point.
Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass then read aloud a statement that Paz Dominguez had asked to be entered into the record. The statement noted that Hansen had taken issue with a county purchasing policy and sought out county counsel for a resolution.
Further, Paz Dominguez’s statement said that because First 5 is an independent entity, “It is no longer appropriate for the A-C Office to perform adjustments to their books.” Her statement also alleged that First 5 does not pay the county for services and disputed the conclusion of First 5’s independent auditor’s that her office had failed to meet its contractual obligations.
“[I]t appears that their determination was based solely on the word of Director Hansen and not on an actual review of A-C operations,” she said in her statement.
Making no reference to the existing MOU, her statement continued, “If the First 5 Commission is interested in engaging with the Office of the Auditor-Controller for accounting services, then they are welcome and encouraged to reach out to the A-C Office directly. We will be happy to set some reasonable parameters for the engagement and ensure that the public is reimbursed for the services performed by its Auditor-Controller’s Office.”
As Bass was reading the statement her face contorted in confusion a couple of times, and Bohn could be heard trying to interject with disagreements.
Asked to respond to Paz Dominguez’s statement, Hansen reiterated that her agency does pay the county and that the county is contractually obligated to provide services in return.
“Does the A-C get to choose which contractual agreements she complies with and which she does not?” Hansen asked.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who serves as the county representative on First 5’s Board of Commissioners, asked Hansen whether she has reached out to the Auditor-Controller directly. Hansen said she and her staff reached out multiple times and didn’t get a response until she involved both county counsel and the media.
“I’m happy to meet with the Auditor-Controller if she would like to meet, but I don’t feel like I need to be reaching out and telling people do your job in accordance with our agreement when you won’t even respond,” Hansen said.
Hansen went on to say that First 5’s commissioners, many of whom work for other organizations, worry that speaking out against Paz Dominguez will prompt retaliation against their own agencies in the form of delayed payments or other roadblocks. First 5 may need to sever its relationship with the county, Hansen said, even though it would entail legal fees and a heavy burden on her staff because they’d be forced to develop a new set of fiscal procedures.
Bushnell expressed her sympathies with Hansen, as did other members of the board. The staff report for this item recommended that the board confirm the county’s responsibilities under the MOU and “direct county financial staff” to fulfill its obligations under that agreement.
But Bushnell said she was reluctant to give direction to Paz Dominguez, who has argued that the board has no authority over her since she’s independently elected. Bushnell called the situation frustrating and disheartening.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson suggested using the word “request” rather than “direct,” and Bohn (perhaps sarcastically) offered a “pretty please.”
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes said the situation offers a prime example of how county government functions as a cog in the machinery of the larger community, keeping it running from the standpoint of services and economics. “And we’re failing our community in that regard,” she said, referring to the First 5 situation.
The county will do what it can to continue serving First 5, Hayes said, but she added that the situation is really in the hands of the Auditor-Controller. “Critical financial components need to be completed in a timely manner,” she said, noting that the county has allocated many resources to the A-C’s Office, including a 70 percent increase in staff and nearly $1 million in services from outside accounting firm MGO. “We need these things to be done, and we need them done yesterday.”
Earlier in the meeting, Paz Dominguez appeared via Zoom to outline her department’s progress on payroll and other duties. (You can read about it below.) She also noted that several positions in her office remain unfilled, though new staff members are actively being recruited and trained.
But with the First 5 situation, the board remained somewhat stymied. Bushnell, visibly frustrated, reiterated that she didn’t want to make a motion directing the Auditor-Controller to do something that she may well refuse to do.
“I’m tired of it,” she said. “What [assurances] are we gonna get that this gets done for First 5? … I mean, I’m gonna be candid: What’s the point?” She looked to her fellow supervisors. “Any four of you can answer me, I don’t care.”
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to accept First 5’s audit and confirm the county’s responsibilities under its MOU with the agency. It was nearing 7 p.m. and everyone involved in the discussion sounded tired and exasperated.
‘What just happened?’
As noted above, this was a long, long meeting, partly due to the volume of public comments from about a dozen aggrieved county residents who are extremely opposed to COVID vaccine mandates, masks and other public health measures.
This week they were specifically calling on the supervisors to return to in-person meetings and to fire Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman, whose employment was up for renewal on the board’s consent calendar. (That board chose to retain Hoffman despite these public objections.)
The board’s post-lunch session began with a tense interrogation of Paz Dominguez. Such confrontations have become a common occurrence over the past year.
Asked to present an update on the county’s messy payroll transition and the other duties of her office, Paz Dominguez delivered a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that included a detailed explanation of the county’s payroll processes along with lessons on her office’s responsibilities, ongoing staffing challenges, timesheet processing, threats to public funds and several other matters.
She walked the board through the lengthy checklist for payroll processing; a list of challenges with that process; a timeline of reports and presentations; a list of conditions that threaten public funds and/or increase risk of theft or fraud; an overview of staffing in her department and more.
She said her department doesn’t have many instructions regarding payroll and has thus had to figure some things out via trial and error. She said the county’s MOUs with outside agencies vary widely and have taken time to suss out. She described glitches in the payroll system and her staff’s efforts to rectify them.
In a previous meeting, the board voted to require monthly in-person updates from Paz Dominguez on the transition of the payroll function back to her office from the Human Resources Department. The board also asked her to develop “metrics and comparables” so the board can tell whether or not her duties are getting accomplished.
Paz Dominguez said she needs more specific direction. “[Y]ou say ‘metrics,’ but what I think you mean is ‘key performance indicators,’ right?” she said, adding that she’s open to such conversations but believes the board needs to familiarize itself with all of her office’s functions in order to have a conversation about prioritizing.
“When you’re talking about invoices taking priority or journals taking priority, you’re telling me [that] taxpayers who are owed property tax refunds may have to wait because we’ve got to process journals … ,” she said. “So I’m going to provide you access to everything that we do and hope that you will have conversations with our office so that we can provide you [with] helpful and valuable information.”
Bohn pressed Paz Dominguez, asking how many of those responsibilities she’d outlined are new and how many were included in her tasks when she got the job. He noted that the county has added positions and is paying MGO $80,000 per month and yet things don’t seem to be improving. Sarcastically he said, “I guess I need to apologize to you for not getting you more people.”
“I do appreciate that apology, Supervisor Bohn,” Paz Dominguez responded, calling his bluff. She proceeded to list a number of new programs her office is dealing with, including Project Trellis grants and COVID-related tasks. She also noted that MGO isn’t assigned to her office specifically but is doing a “fantastic job helping this county correct its accounting practices,” especially in light of the fact that her office is currently short five staffers.
“At this point we are in triage mode every day,” she said. “Every day: What is the fire that we need to put out first?”
Dar Rhodes, the county’s interim human resources director, said the county’s payroll transition lacked a formal plan, and she asserted that her department has maintained about 70 percent of the payroll duties.
Scott Johnson, a partner with MGO, disputed that estimate and said the county’s payroll function had reached “crisis mode” when it was reassigned back to the Auditor-Controller’s Office. The transition is still in its early phases, he said, adding, “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to your auditor-controller for leading the effort to work on trying to stabilize [and] identify the areas that need improvement.”
He later said it has been years since the county performed bank reconciliations — that is, comparing the county books to bank statements — but that is now being done.
[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Humboldt County Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew disputed this statement during the meeting, saying he has direct knowledge of bank reconciliations being done up until Fiscal Year 2019-20. Johnson acknowledged that he’d merely been “told” that this accounting wasn’t done in prior years.]
For much of the conversation it seemed that the two sides — the board and Paz Dominguez — were talking past each other, each trying to get the other to understand or acknowledge something to no avail. Bushnell asked about late employee vacation pay and sick pay and said she’s had trouble getting answers from Paz Dominguez’s office, often finding the door to her office closed.
Paz Dominguez said Bushnell was free to email, call or knock on the door and said the payroll issues have been resolved.
The interrogation went back and forth until Regina Fuller, the county’s deputy director of sheriff’s administration, appeared via Zoom. She asked Paz Dominguez a number of pointed questions: When will the accounts-payable accruals be completed? What about the accounts receivable accruals and the outstanding payroll accrual? She also said that her office and several others offered to send a staff member over to the A-C’s office to help get journals approved and posted but those workers were sent back two or three days later, the work still incomplete.
Paz Dominguez didn’t answer any of those questions. She’d said at the outset that her office was processing payroll that day and she needed to get back to help, and immediately after Fuller’s questions she said she had to go. She suggested Fuller submit her questions in writing, and she thanked the departments that sent help.
“I think they’re offering more!” Bass called out.
Fuller said, “We have asked those questions and not gotten a response. So we’ve asked yet again and still not gotten a response back, even in person.”
But Paz Dominguez was gone.
“What — what just happened?” Bushnell asked.
Fuller responded, “I asked some pointed questions and didn’t get an answer.”
Still, Bushnell said she’d gotten some of her questions answered, and while the underlying conflict is clearly unresolved, the board moved on to other matters.
Conflict of interest
Later in the afternoon, the board took up the question of whether Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Melanie McCavour has a conflict of interest now that she’s been hired as the tribal historic preservation officer (THPO) for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.
Planning and Building Director John Ford emphasized the importance of THPOs in the planning process, saying every single application submitted to the department gets submitted to tribes if the project is in their ancestral territory, and approximately two-thirds of the county’s cannabis projects are within Bear River’s ancestral lands, as are all of the major projects currently under consideration, including the Nordic Aquafarms production facility, the McKinleyville Town Center project and the North McKay Ranch project.
Ford said the issue is not about McCavour personally but rather about public perception and the fairness of the process. “My concern is that when you have a person [in both roles], it sometimes is confusing to the public or staff or the applicants: ‘Am I talking to a THPO or a planning commissioner?’” he said.
Ford said he brought up the concerns with McCavour but was unable to adequately explain his concern, so he stepped back and had county counsel draft a memo. McCavour, he said, offered to recuse herself from all items within the tribe’s ancestral territory.
It wasn’t clear who’d originally raised the conflict-of-interest concerns, though Bushnell said many people thought it was her. It was definitely not, she said, explaining that she’d gotten a memo about this from county counsel just like everyone else on the board.
McCavour, appearing via Zoom, said she had consulted with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and was told that since she didn’t have anything to gain economically she didn’t have a conflict of interest.
She insisted that she’s fully capable of maintaining dual roles, that she’s not in a position of power with the Rancheria and that she has always valued objectivity over just about anything else. She quibbled a bit with Ford’s side of the story, saying that in an effort to end the argument with him she’d offered to recuse herself from any projects on which the Bear River Band requested a condition of approval beyond “incidental discovery” of tribal resources.
McCavour said that given Ford’s continued objections to her service, she was left to assume that he doesn’t trust her or, worse, that he sees the Bear River Band as corrupt and able to exert influence on her.
Bushnell pushed back on that, saying nobody had mentioned corruption. Ford likewise said the matter at hand was “purely an issue with the appearance of a fair process” and in no way a reflection of his feelings about the Rancheria.
When it came time for the board to discuss the matter, Wilson said this was a reasonable discussion to have, though he leaned toward allowing McCavour to remain on the commission.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said it was obvious to him that McCavour takes these issues seriously, and her willingness to recuse herself on certain projects covered his concerns.
Billingsley offered what he called “a middle path”: McCavour could offer to recuse herself from decisions on projects on which tribal cultural resources have been identified. McCavour said she’d be willing to do so.
During the public comment period, several people spoke on McCavour’s behalf. Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio said he was troubled by the fact that this was brought up at all, saying the matter seemed politically motivated, “and that’s troubling to me.”
“You have the best commission you’ve had in a long time,” Bongio told the board. “We have a commission that comes from differing views but comes up with good decisions.”
A handful of locals also came to McCavour’s defense, and in the end the board chose to take no action, leaving McCavour on the Planning Commission.