The Humboldt County Department of Finance is a no-go, for now at least.
The Board of Supervisors today voted 4-1, with Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson dissenting, to nix a proposed ballot measure that sought to consolidate the county’s Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office and Auditor-Controller’s office into a unified Department of Finance, whose director would have been appointed by the board rather than elected by the public.
[CORRECTION: The Outpost originally reported that Wilson abstained from the vote. However, county staff recorded his vote as a “no.”]
A similar proposal was presented to Humboldt County voters in 2016 through Measures Q and R, but the pair of ballot measures did not pass. But after the tumultuous tenure of former Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez, the Board of Supervisors last year decided to revisit the consolidation concept and directed staff to draw up a new version of the measure.
Speaking during this morning’s meeting, County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes noted that the Treasurer-Tax Collector Amy Christensen and Auditor-Controller Cheryl Dillingham “have both indicated opposition to the measure.”
“Furthermore, your board is not in it’s not unanimous in support around placing this on the ballot,” Hayes continued, noting that Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone had voted against the item during the board’s Nov. 7 meeting. “[That] is a little non-typical when placing a ballot measure before the voters [because] it reduces the confidence level around the success of such a measure. That is something for your board to consider as you provide final direction to move forward with this.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who was absent during the board’s last discussion on the matter, acknowledged that “there was a time that this [would have been] the greatest thing since butter and popcorn.” However, he didn’t feel consolidation was necessary, as the current leaders of both departments have successfully steered the county back on track.
“I don’t know the amount of vendors we lost in the previous four years,” Bohn said. “It was trying times … but those are issues that are under the bridge. … I think we’re digging ourselves out and we will soon be whole again.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell took a more neutral stance. “I do think that the current electeds are doing a fabulous job,” she said. “I really am happy with whatever the board chooses.”
Similarly, Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo said, “I don’t think that it’s imperative that we move forward with this right now.”
Wilson spoke in favor of putting the matter to voters, noting that “there are cogent arguments in both directions.”
“Mostly, this is a risk calculation,” he said. “What we would be asking the public is, ‘Is there a risk of fraud and abuse by consolidating [and] having the auditor-controller be hired [by] this board?’ … And then on the other side of that is the risk of the politicization of the office itself through a democratic process.”
Wilson criticized the notion that the matter should be set aside because there are “good people” currently leading the departments who are likely to be re-elected.
“That is an assumption of political succession, which I think is also something that is not as democratic as one might imagine,” he said. “I do actually believe that the people we have working in these offices right now are very competent, doing a very good job, and from that perspective … that risk factor is quite a bit lower now, but … the future is unknown.”
Speaking during the public comment portion of today’s meeting, Christensen urged the board to keep the two departments separate “to maintain the strict internal controls currently in place.”
“It is critical that the offices of the auditor-controller and the treasurer-tax collector remain independent and elected by the people of Humboldt County,” she said. “Cross-training between those two departments cannot happen. Operations between the Treasurer-Tax Collector and the Auditor-Controller are running efficiently, and I am confident that I see that continuing for the long term.”
Following public comment, Bushnell asked whether the checks and balances would remain in place if the two departments were combined. Hayes said each department “would still have their [own] processes in place,” but they would answer to a single department head.
After a bit of additional discussion among board members, Madrone made a motion to quash the proposal for the time being. Bohn seconded the action.
Check back on Wednesday for more coverage of this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.