Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. | Screenshot.


Well into the ninth hour of Tuesday’s protracted Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting, the supes voted 3-1, with First District Supervisor Rex Bohn absent and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone dissenting, to direct staff to prepare a county finance-related measure for March primary election ballots.

If passed, the measure would combine the offices of the county auditor-controller and its treasurer-tax collector into a single Department of Finance, whose director would be appointed by the board.

Attentive voters with good memories may recall being asked to consider exactly this proposal back in 2016, via Measures Q and R, with Q asking whether voters wanted the two finance positions combined into one while R asked whether the director of such a department should be elected or appointed. 

Q wound up failing by a margin of roughly 54 percent to 46 percent, making the answer to R irrelevant. However, after the tumultuous tenure of former Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez, the Board of Supervisors last year decided to take another run at it, directing staff to start working on a new version of the measure.

Staff’s recommended ballot language for the do-over, presented in a staff report yesterday, goes as follows:

Humboldt County Fiscal Accountability and Financial Management Act.
To maintain stringent fiscal accountability standards and ensure the Treasurer/County Auditor is professionally trained/qualified, shall the County of Humboldt consolidate the offices of Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector into one department led by an appointed, professionally qualified Director of Finance responsible for:
  • making only authorized and legal payments;
  • ensuring timely and accurate property tax billing and payments; and
  • requiring posting of monthly financial reports for public review?

Board discussion on the item began with a presentation from representatives of a pair of public polling firms, FM3 Research and the Lew Edwards Group, which recently conducted interviews with 661 likely voters, asking their opinions on a range of issues, including county finance matters, transportation and other key concerns.

According to the results, respondents are most concerned about homelessness, drug use and the cost of housing, with road conditions being a lower priority.

Another poll question found that a majority of likely voters are concerned about waste and inefficiency in local government while traffic safety concerns ranked much lower. (The results have a four percent margin of error, according to Curtis Below of FM3.)

The polling results were designed to inform the board’s decisions on two potential ballot measures: one regarding the potential consolidation of county finance offices and another regarding a potential new revenue measure — either a retail sales tax designed to finance road repairs and general county services or special purpose tax measure to generate revenues specifically earmarked for roads and transportation.

In California, “special purpose” taxes require 66.67 percent voter approval to pass whereas “general” tax measures need just a simple majority. However, the higher threshold could soon be lowered for some specific projects. A statewide ballot measure set to appear in March, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1, will ask voters whether new special taxes and bonds for affordable housing and public infrastructure projects should require only 55 percent approval to pass. County staff said that’s one reason why it might make sense to wait until next November for a roads tax.

On Tuesday, the board had to decide not only which route to take with each of the two potential measures but also whether to place them on March 2024 primary ballots or the November General Election ballots.

Public Works Director Tom Mattson spoke to the need for road maintenance funds.

“Our roads are in bad shape and getting in worse shape,” he told the board, and he reminded them that a 2016 retail tax measure aimed at funding road repairs narrowly failed at the ballot box. Mattson said he’s committed to working with the county and educating voters before they’re asked again to consider such a tax, likely next November.

During the public comment period, leaders of local environmental groups urged the board to include funding for public transit in any transportation-related ballot measure.

Colin Fiske, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible transportation Priorities (CRTP), said a coalition of local groups “will oppose any growth road tax measure that fails to include public transit and other work to decarbonize transportation.”

Caroline Griffith, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, backed up Fiske’s stance, and she questioned whether the polling results were skewed by improper framing of the issues, particularly the connection between public transit and climate change.

Addressing the proposed consolidation of county finance offices, Treasurer-Tax Collector Amy Christensen said she’s opposed to the idea.

“I firmly believe that the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office needs to remain independent and that the Treasurer-Tax Collector should be elected by the people of Humboldt County,” Christensen said.

Mychal Evenson, who serves as the county’s deputy auditor-controller but stressed that he was speaking purely as an individual, agreed with her.

“There’s important internal control differences between the Treasurer-Tax Collector and the Auditor-Controller,” he said. “They need to stay apart. If they get combined … it opens up opportunities for fraud.”

However, Arcata resident Kate Shea Ennis suggested that an appointed finance director position might attract more qualified candidates.

We’ve experienced recently what can happen when we have someone who’s less than qualified in a position of power, and the absence of necessary, required documents really jeopardizes funding for the most vulnerable in our communities,” she said. “And so it really is a very important issue to all of us, and one that should appear on the ballot.”

The board spent a good deal of time debating the substance and timing of the two potential ballot measures, trying to agree when, how and whether to present the matters to the voting public.

Madrone stated at the outset of the discussion that he would not support a ballot measure asking voters to combine the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office and Auditor-Controller’s office into a single Department of Finance. But he did propose getting a roads measure on the March ballot.

Mattson and other county staffers suggested that it would be better to take more time crafting a transportation-funding initiative, allowing time for staff to get public feedback that could inform the language of a ballot measure. County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes said it will take “an incredible amount of work” to prepare a transportation funding measure, whereas staff has been working on the finance measure since last year.

Deputy County Administrative Officer Sean Quincey addressed concerns about the independence and accountability that a county director of finance would have, noting that it would be a state-regulated position subject to annual audits.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said there are “cogent and real arguments” on both sides of the debate, and he said it makes sense for voters to make the decision. However, he did observe that some fiscal management professionals may not want to pursue elected office.

I do understand that it’s hard to recruit for these positions, but I don’t see [how] requiring someone to go through an electoral process expands our recruitment,” Wilson said.

“Elections are scary,” Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell agreed. “And so some people just don’t have it in their wheelhouse.”

Madrone pushed back, saying he doesn’t think a unified Department of Finance is needed, and he reiterated his call to get a roads-funding measure on the March ballot, despite the pressure it would put on staff. (The county would need to finalize the language of a ballot measure by December 8 to meet the county Elections Office deadline for the March primary, and there are only two Board of Supervisors meetings between now and then.)

Wilson wound up making a motion to adopt staff’s recommendation, which was to move forward with placing the Department of Finance measure on the March ballot and to continue community outreach for a tax revenue measure in the fall.

Madrone wound up voting “no” due to his opposition to establishing a Department of Finance. Bohn was out of town representing the county at a National Association of Counties meeting and thus did not vote.

The motion passed 3-1, though the board won’t finalize the finance-related ballot measure until a future meeting.