Humboldt County Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez. | Screenshot from Tuesday’s meeting.


Consider this Part 2 of our report on Tuesday’s prolonged meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, a meeting that was occupied almost entirely with issues concerning Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez. (Read Part 1 here.)

The afternoon session was dominated by an often acrimonious hearing regarding payroll services, a county function that has been rife with problems and controversy.

The board was considering two main issues: First was whether or not to hire outside auditing firm CliftonLarsonAllen (at a cost of $259,000) to conduct an audit of payroll services in hopes of identifying deficiencies. Second was whether to keep payroll services located within the Auditor-Controller’s Office, where it was moved in September, or to move that task somewhere else — either returning it to the Human Resources Department, from which it was recently moved, transferring it (temporarily) to the County Administrative Office or developing a whole new, independent payroll department.

After three-plus hours, including some emotional testimony and testy exchanges, the board hadn’t settled on an answer to either of those questions. Instead, they voted to continue the hearing to April 5, and they directed Paz Dominguez to meet with other department heads in the meantime to review previous payroll evaluation reports in hopes of smoothing out some of the ongoing problems.

County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes began the hearing by saying it’s hard to tell whether moving payroll back to the Auditor-Controller’s Office last fall has had a positive or negative impact. She did say that, since the transition, her office has received an increased number of reports from employees and departments about paycheck inaccuracies, late payments and difficulties reaching the Auditor-Controller’s staff to rectify errors. 

Paz Dominguez said that the payroll system was “damaged” when it came to her office.

“There were no instructions,” she said. “There was no contingency for what happens if something goes wrong in payroll.” 

Still, she said that her office was responsible for getting payroll issued in November following a system breakdown. She said her office has learned many things since taking over payroll in September, including how to navigate the numerous memorandums of understanding with various employee bargaining units and how to integrate workers’ compensation and disability.

Addressing the communication problems, Paz Dominguez said, “We understand that people are not getting responses as timely as they want or as often as they want — and we’re not here to dispute that. I think I’ve been very clear with your board since 2017 that we do not have enough staffing to accommodate all of the service needs of the county.”

Her office simply doesn’t have the capacity to answer the hundreds of emails that come in every day, she said. 

Zachary O’Hanen, the county’s acting director of human resources, offered his assessment. “How’s it going? I do think it’s still a little rocky,” he said. “I mean, let’s just be honest. The communication is definitely tough. We know that staffing levels in the Auditor-Controller’s Office is — they’re low, and they’re working very hard. … What I can say is [that] it’s getting better.”

Not everyone agreed. First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said he’s heard that employees in the Sheriff’s Office have been seeing lots of payroll errors. He said employees have emailed him and others seeking assistance after failed attempts to reach staff in the Auditor-Controller’s Office. 

Paz Dominguez encouraged the board to give her more time to resolve the ongoing issues, saying her office inherited a “broken system” at a particularly difficult time of the calendar year. 

Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell grilled her during the meeting. She said that there didn’t seem to be nearly as many problems before payroll was moved to Paz Dominguez’s office, and she stressed the importance of responding to emails about late or incorrect paychecks, saying many county employees live paycheck-to-paycheck.

“Karen, you have to recognize that people need their money,” she said. 

Paz Dominguez said she does understand that, and she suggested that errors are simply getting more attention lately because “it’s become more popular now, right?”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone noted that the majority of county employees still use paper timecards, and he encouraged those departments to transition to electronic systems. 

Things got a bit more emotional when Regina Fuller, the deputy director of sheriff’s administration, came to the lectern on behalf of Sheriff Billy Honsal to share the perspective from her office. 

She recounted a letter signed by 11 county employees and submitted to the board in September, urging them not to move payroll to the Auditor-Controller’s Office. Fuller was among the signatories, along with payroll specialists, business managers and administrators from other departments. They were concerned because the short-staffed Auditor-Controller’s Office was already months behind on essential financial tasks, and emails to that office often didn’t get any response beyond an auto-reply for months at a time.

On Tuesday, Fuller said their concerns have proved well-founded. Attempts to reach the Auditor-Controller’s Office to resolve payroll issues — including an employee who didn’t get paid and someone who didn’t get their worker’s compensation processed correctly — went unanswered.

“And it wasn’t just a lack of communication,” Fuller said. “It’s a flat-out wall.”

She said that when payroll staff were working in the Human Resources Office, they “weren’t allowed” to talk to Paz Dominguez. 

“And so my colleagues and I were brave, and we came forward [with the letter],” she said. “And we talked to you and we told you our concerns. And I can tell you that since [then], that wall has now happened to me. … She [Paz Dominguez] will not speak to me. I can’t get anything accomplished. And it makes me — I’m being brave right now, because I’m afraid [about] what this is going to mean to my department and my staff for speaking up right now. So it is not just a communication problem. It is an absolute wall. And it’s a refusal.”

You can see her testimony here:

Fuller was followed by Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew, who said that despite the problems, he believes payroll should stay with the Auditor-Controller’s Office, because that’s where the subject matter expertise lies, but he suggested employing a liaison to help with communication issues.

Connie Beck, director of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said she and her staff have been meeting regularly with staff from the CAO’s office and the Human Resources office. 

“One of the problems that we see is the Auditor-Controller refuses to come to those meetings, to be collaborative and communicate with us,” Beck said. “… What I see recently is … our staff in departments are getting less and less access to the system, so we can’t check for errors. So we’re not going to see less errors, we’re going to see more.”

Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman said his staff have seen “a marked increase in errors” since payroll was moved to the Auditor-Controller’s Office. He noted that there was an existing payroll process, adding, “It seems like we should be really thoughtful about what we’re changing and how we’re changing it so we don’t disrupt the system.”

Paz Dominguez said communication issues often go both directions. “The reality is that we are actively always working on providing those responses,” she said regarding emails about payroll issues. And when she doesn’t respond quickly, she said, “It’s usually because I’m working on payroll.”

Following public comment, Bohn said he would vote the same way he did six months ago — to have payroll handled by someone other than the Auditor-Controller’s Office. 

“This isn’t working,” he said. “We just heard it. We just heard it again from department heads — our two biggest department heads. It’s not working.”

A number of ideas were tossed around, including the prospect of hiring the outside firm to conduct an audit, or moving payroll over to the CAO’s office. 

Bushnell challenged Paz Dominguez on a number of matters. She asked whether, in the Auditor-Controller’s own audits of the payroll functions, she would find discrepancies or paycheck errors, even if they weren’t brought to her attention by the affected employee. 

When Paz Dominguez answered yes, Bushnell said, “So, my paycheck was wrong for a year, and you didn’t find that.”

Paz Dominguez said the error — which concerned Bushnell’s benefits — could have happened for a number of different reasons, and the payroll audit under consideration wouldn’t catch such things. 

Again and again, people brought up the communications problems. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he has been sent email chains from employees who haven’t gotten responses to their inquiries for long stretches of time. Such matters shouldn’t reach that point, he said. They should be dealt with by the customer service folks in the Auditor-Controller’s Office.

“We’re talking about this right now because we’re having communication breakdowns,” Wilson said. “We should not be in this room talking about this.” He said he’d much rather spend time talking about housing and climate change, but payroll and communication problems are consuming “so much oxygen.” 

The board keeps hearing about communication issues, especially between the CAO’s Office and the Auditor-Controller’s Office, Wilson said. 

“This is a breakdown. We need to have the A-C’s Office be able to show up and be present when the CAO and other departments are having these issues. It’s really, really important.”

Paz Dominguez said she has made a suggestion for a “payroll think tank” involving payroll staff from across departments, and she’d be happy to commit to that. And, again, she said it would be best to leave payroll in her office. A new employee is starting on Monday, and staff recently consolidated a payroll inbox, which should streamline communication. 

“It feels like intensive care right now,” Board Chair Virginia Bass said at one point. She went on to recount her own communication problems with Paz Dominguez, saying the Auditor-Controller got angry when Bass personally responded to an employee who’d missed their paycheck.

“So I’ll tell you, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” Bass said. “I understand you were stressed, probably, and busy. But I’m only doing my job as a supervisor, not so much [because] they’re an employee but because they’re a constituent, because they live in the county.”

Paz Dominguez said she believes she has improved her office’s communication, even retaining coaching services to better understand communication styles and behavior patterns.

By now the meeting had stretched past 5 p.m. Wilson said he didn’t feel like he could make a decision on the expensive contract that day, and Madrone made a motion to continue the item to a future meeting. His motion also called for Paz Dominguez to meet with the CAO and acting human resources director to review findings from previous reports on this payroll issue.

There was one more tense exchange between Bushnell and Paz Dominguez. After Hayes reiterated that communication with Paz Dominguez is challenging, Bushnell turned to the Auditor-Controller.

“Karen,” she said, “how come you don’t meet with our CAO?”

Paz Dominguez said they’ve sometimes just “missed each other,” and other times meetings just didn’t line up. 

Madrone said everyone needs to set aside the past and move forward working together. 

“I want to hear Karen say that she’s gonna sit down with [the CAO],” Bushnell said. She turned again to Paz Dominguez and asked, “Are you willing?”

“Can we be clear,” Paz Dominguez replied. “It’s not just me who has to be willing. When I reach out to the CAO and ask for her time, I would like her time. I would not like to be sent to a deputy or be told that a deputy will reach out to me.”

Bohn could be heard muttering in the background, and finally his frustration boiled over. 

“You know, we’ve spent 15 minutes discussing [whether] you two can meet,” he said. “Your offices are 40 yards apart. I think you use the same bathroom. … Are you telling me that between the two of you, you guys can’t come up with a time to meet for an hour every week?”

He suggested they just walk 15 yards apiece and meet in the conference room “so neither of you have to put a lot of miles in to do it.”

“But I can’t believe we’re sitting here talking about — ‘You have to promise to meet with her; you have to promise to meet with her — and we’re grownups. This is what needs to be done for this county and the people of this county. And I am just tired of this bullshit.”

Here’s that moment in the meeting video:

As Bass attempted to reprimand Bohn, Paz Dominguez could be heard replying, “Supervisor Bohn, it only continues because you continue it.”

The hearing wrapped up shortly thereafter — to be continued next month. The vote was 4-1 with Bohn voted “no.” 


ADDENDUM: The Outpost has asked Paz Dominguez three times over the past week or so whether she plans to run for re-election. The first two times she did not respond. The third time, earlier today, she said via text that the decision is one she takes very seriously so she can’t rush into it.

“For me, it’s not about politics for the sake of politics but rather a thoughtful and careful consideration about my capacity and commitment to serve the public in this role,” she wrote. “It is also a deeply personal decision as it impacts my family.”

A new text: “I have never felt entitled to this position as it is not my right to have it. It is my privilege.”

We texted back, at 11:03 a.m., to ask if that means she hasn’t yet decided. We have yet to get a response.