Local fisherman Ken Bates, representing the California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association, addresses the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. | Photo by Ryan Burns.


We asked this yesterday, and we’ll ask it again: Should the county place a measure on 2024 ballots asking the public to create a Department of Finance? This hypothetical department would consolidate two currently separate, elected positions — treasurer-tax collector and auditor-controller — into a single Department of Finance. 

A separate ballot measure would ask voters whether the head of that new department should be appointed or elected. 

Why are these questions coming up now? Well, Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chair Virginia Bass is serving out her last few meetings, and before walking out the door she wanted to re-raise these two queries, to which voters narrowly responded “No, thanks” back in 2016.

Bass wagers that perspectives may have changed over the intervening years in light of the fiscal and interpersonal chaos that attended the tenure of former Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez, who resigned amid a state lawsuit and fierce internal squabbling this past June, having lost her re-election bid by a landslide.

Tabatha Miller, the assistant county administrative officer and chief financial officer, said staff has done a bit of research into this proposal, examining how things work in other California counties, and could dig even deeper, possibly by conducting some public polling, should the board so choose.

Five counties in the state have a Department of Finance and “a number” of other counties, both large and small, have combined the offices of treasurer-tax collector and auditor-controller, Miller said, adding, “Most of those are elected but there are a few that are appointed.”

Miller brought up a related but separate question: Should Humboldt County ask voters to change the county governance structure from a general law county — that is, one that strictly follows California’s Government Code — to a “charter county,” which would give it the autonomy to create and enforce local ordinances, as long as they don’t conflict with the general laws of the state.

Fourteen of California’s 58 counties are organized as charter counties, and Miller explained that becoming one would allow Humboldt to reduce the number of elected officials (though it must maintain a sheriff, district attorney and assessor). 

Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell encouraged polling the public to get a better sense of community sentiment on both matters — the Department of Finance proposal and the charter county proposal. She also said she likes having the treasurer-tax collector operate independently from the auditor-controller.

Miller said it would be possible to have two separate divisions within the Department of Finance, which would allow for checks and balances. 

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said becoming a charter county would allow Humboldt a lot more flexibility, allowing us to implement ranked-choice voting, for example. 

As for the county’s fiscal management positions, Wilson said appointing such people has the advantage of being able to recruit candidates nationwide for such professional-class jobs. 

“We don’t limit ourselves in terms of our ability to recruit for our engineers or medical professionals … to [people] just living in the county and wanting to go through an election,” Wilson said. Organizations with an annual budget of half a billion dollars don’t typically limit themselves to recruiting from a county population of under 140,000, and further limiting the candidate pool to people who are “willing to go through the yearlong interview process that we call elections,” he continued.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he, too, would like staff to bring back more information on becoming a charter county, noting that ranked-choice voting is “pretty exciting to a lot of people who have read about it and understand it, but we can’t do it unless we are a chartered county.”

Madrone said he also wants more information on the pros and cons of having an appointed director of finance, noting that while checks and balances are certainly important, some people say you achieve that through elections while others “argue that there would be better checks and balances to have had an appointed position [so] that you’re absolutely certain the person has the qualifications for the job.”

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said, “We lived through the cons [of having an elected auditor-controller] for the last four years,” adding, “The one thing that shouldn’t be political is our finances.” 

During the public comment period, self-styled wielder of “weaponized data” and erstwhile Paz Dominguez supporter Thomas Edrington spoke on behalf of his Transparency Humboldt Coalition, warning the board not to “appoint or in any way interfere again with the duly elected office of auditor-controller, the person who watches your money. My money. For me.”

Such power “is not to be in your hands, period,” Edrington told the board.

He blamed the county’s recent fiscal management woes on toxic work environments and the “frauds holding the reins at the CAO’s Office.”

Afterward, Wilson noted that people tend to get awfully righteous about money, “which is fine, but, I mean, we also have professionals in our community that design our bridges, our roads, our schools, our medical professionals … and we don’t subject them to political processes in these ways, necessarily.”

The board wound up passing a motion that directed staff to come back at a later date with more information on these matters, including charter counties, qualifications for county financial positions and potential public polling questions.

County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes weighed in, saying, “Placing a ballot measure on on the ballot is a multi-step process so we’ll be talking about this many more times.”

Community grant coordinator

In light of the profound economic struggles facing Southern Humboldt businesses in particular following the collapse of the local cannabis industry, Bushnell asked her colleagues on the board to consider creating a new full-time community grant coordinator position.

Local businesses and small government bodies in the county’s unincorporated areas need help applying for grants, Bushnell said. 

Economic Development Director Scott Adair said that though community events such as town hall discussions, he has learned that remote, volunteer-run organizations “may lack the skills or education or knowledge to even find grants or write grants. Some of these organizations are actually paying consultants, sometimes as much as $10,000 or more, to write grants for them,” he said.

Madrone said he supports grant writers, noting that he and Wilson supported the creation of two new grant writer/project manager positions for the Public Works Department, which has benefited from their work. 

“I mean, I would support new grant positions in every department across the board every day it came before us,” Madrone said, adding that there should maybe be a grant manager or czar to oversee the rest of them.

Wilson said that while he understands the importance of grant writing, there also needs to be staff to administer the grants. He noted that there are local nonprofit organizations such as the Humboldt Area Foundation and the Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA) that provide this type of support. 

Hank Seemann, deputy director of public works, appeared via Zoom and said the county is already engaged in the seven-county North Coast Resource Partnership, which serves as a grant administrator, helping direct state-allocated funds to small districts, cities and nonprofits.

Seemann agreed with Wilson that writing a grant application is a small part of the full lifecycle of a grant, so the board should probably narrow its focus and exactly which areas of community development it would like to focus on.

“It seems like this is almost right down the alley of what the Humboldt Area Foundation was formed for,” Bohn said, adding that it might be outside of the county’s wheelhouse.

Bushnell again reiterated the dire economic situation for many local businesses, and the board wound up adopting a motion to have economic development staff analyze community needs, grant availability and potential ways to structure a grant manager position.

Fishermen and wind energy

Before the board adjourned to closed session, local fisherman Ken Bates delivered prepared remarks and a PowerPoint presentation on behalf of the recently formed California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association. The topic was local fishers’ involvement and concerns with the development of offshore wind energy.

“Fishermen are not opposed to renewable energy … ,” Bates said. “But what we are trying to do is to figure out how we can survive these projects over the long run.”

Leases to develop floating offshore wind projects within the Humboldt Wind Energy Area were being auctioned off as Bates spoke, and he said those developments will result in the loss of up to 3,000 square miles of fishing grounds, plus disruptions from increased vessel traffic and new shoreside infrastructure. 

The California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association was created through a regional effort and financed via a $98,000 grant from the Ocean Protection Council. 

The goal of his organization — and, by extension, of local fishermen — is to avoid impacts on fishing grounds and in harbor areas wherever possible, minimize the unavoidable impacts and mitigate the damage, possibly through fees directed to support long-term resilience in the local fishing industry.

Bates aims, through his organization, to create Fishing Community Benefit Agreements. He’s hoping his group gets the attention of the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) and the California Energy Commission so that local fishermen can be involved in future processes, such as locating energy transmission lines. 

The board accepted the report and expressed support for the local fishing industry.

Odds and ends:

  • Early in the meeting, the board proclaimed this to be Human Rights Awareness Month. Reading the proclamation aloud, Bass noted the “lack of civility” and the “hate and vile speech” common here in 2022 and called for personal reflection and civil engagement in the coming year. The Human Rights Commission issued a press release after the meeting, noting the interruption of a recent Pride event by protesters as well as the dissemination of hateful stickers and antisemitic literature. Here’s a copy of the proclamation.
  • The board passed a resolution recognizing former Humboldt County Public Health Officer Dr. Don Baird, who was recently honored with the Frederick K.M. Plessner Memorial Award by the California Medical Association. The award honors the California physician who best exemplifies the ethics and practice of a rural country practitioners.
  • They also passed a resolution honoring Singing Trees Recovery Center, which recently closed its doors after more than three decades of helping people overcome addictions. Bushnell said her son has been sober for six years following a four-month residential program at Singing Trees.
  • The board appointed David Sundberg and Callie Buck to the Weott Community Services District’s board of directors, which had hit a brick wall, procedurally, because it only had two members, making it impossible to reach the quorum necessary to pass anything. “We’re kind of seeing a trend lately where it’s getting harder and harder to find people to step up and fill these roles,” Madrone said. Bohn agreed, saying such positions are volunteer, “and you never get thanked. All you do is get doodoo heaped on you.” He called for an end of the “abuse” that comes from certain members of the public at meetings of such boards.