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Don’t Mess with the Auditor

Item 5b on Tuesday Supervisors Agenda was: “Discussion and Possible Action Including Approval of Extra Help Appointment of Lloyd Weer to Fulfill Critically Needed Duties After His Retirement, Pursuant to California Government Code Section 7522.56. (Sponsor: Auditor-Controller)

After some petty gripes earlier in the day, the Board took the question again toward the end of Tuesday’s Board meeting. After some more petty gripes, Supervisor/Board Chair Dan Gjerde asked if Acting Auditor Chamise Cubbison had any more comments.

She did, and they were in the public interest and irrefutable.

Cubbison: I understand that you are prepared with a motion to make this happen. I am just incredibly frustrated with how this whole transition in the Auditor's office is being handled. You may have an issue with how and when the auditor left. That's between you and him, not me. I am the one left to hold things together and endeavor to maintain the critical functions of this office. It feels like my hands are tied behind my back. I seem to have a conflict with the board for reasons I do not honestly understand. Not a single board member has contacted me about any concerns about my performance as an employee of the County for the last 13 years, nor as the Assistant Auditor for the last three. There were several members of the community who reached out to you to support my appointment as Auditor and you declined to take any action based on old information based on issues the Auditor's office had with the District Attorney. I don't know if anyone noticed, but the legal opinion was obtained to support the District Attorney's position on asset forfeiture funds was obtained by the CEO from a colleague of the CEO. I don't know if anyone noticed that the legal opinion actually reaffirmed at the time that travel authorization was required for travel over $1000 as defined by Board policy. It included all costs of travel. And that travel had been denied for travel that was clearly over $1000 when you added all the cost of that travel together. Did anyone note that that travel policy was amended to accept the DA’s claim after all those things occurred and that all the issues brought up by the District Attorney were nearly all resolved? It's not always easy to be the one to explain why something is not possible and that the policy would need to change to allow somebody to do what they would like to do. Sometimes that includes the Board. That does not mean that I wasn't doing my job. It seems that the Board is of the opinion that they should be in control of the Auditor's office so that they can select when the policies apply and to whom and when. Without changing those requirements. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is with me. But I have performed my duties and I have been an exemplary employee. But it feels like you are obstructing me at every opportunity. I'm not sure if this is all about creating the Director of Finance and that's really what's happening. It could have been approached in a more respectful and honorable manner. I'm tired of feeling like I constantly have to defend myself and my job for trying to maintain these services and standards that the county departments, schools and special districts and the community expect. The workload on my shoulders and on some of my staff is unsustainable. It's ironic that yesterday the Board discussed the challenges and difficulties in finding and retaining employees. Talking about employee morale and that it would be a good idea to poll employees about working for the county, their satisfaction and what they need to be able to live and work in his community. The Board also discussed working with employees as ambassadors and encouraging people to want to work for the county. And yet nothing about this transition subsequent to the retirement of the Auditor-Controller has been handled to support those ideas. It's appalling how little support our office has received and how disrespectful this entire process has been. I have been a dedicated employee for more than 13 years. While you may see me differently because I now work in an elected office, I am and have been an excellent employee. My staff is incredibly dedicated. Some of us have not taken vacation for the last couple of years. We have been working incredible amounts of overtime with no appreciation or respect or allowance for what that is taking. Several employees are now fearful and angered for how little concern you seem to have for our success and are likely considering other employment. We live in this community. We work with every organization at all levels. We process every invoice and payment the County makes. We deal with every employee through payroll. And yet the Board seems to have no concern for our well-being. What kind of message are you sending for the other County employees or prospective employees? I was contacted by no less than 20 employees after the August 21 meeting to express their astonishment at how that item was handled. There are dozens of other county employees watching today. I have already been contacted by five of them. Again, they are all angered at how this morning session went. I implore you to do the right thing today and find additional ways to be helpful and supportive rather than obstructionist because that is not looking out for the County organization or your employees or your constituents. I appreciate that you are allowing this to happen. But I would appreciate it if you didn't make it sound like it was a huge favor and somehow the fact that Lloyd Weer has not been completely cut out of the system is somehow a problem. I asked for this item be brought forward on on August 31. I was told at County Counsel's recommendation that it was supposed to be scheduled at the next board meeting. It did not get on the next board meeting as I had requested as part of my request to the CEO’s office for support during this transition. So it was not a good process to turn everything off and deny him access and stop the closing of the financial statements entirely until we brought him back on the books. So I'm sorry. But that was not appropriate. I was contacted by William [Schurtz, Human Resources Director] on my day off on Friday, the first day I had taken off since Christmas and we will rectify that. But I would like to keep him on the books as it is not a good transition to have to turn everything off and then turn everything back on. I would really appreciate it if we would receive some support to move forward. I was not aware that an item was coming forward on October 26 to discuss the Director of Finance. I would appreciate it if some people would talk to the offices that might be impacted and involved in that. Thank you.

Supervisor Glenn McGourty: I'm sorry that you feel like you are disenfranchised in this discussion. But quite honestly there really hasn't been any discussion [of the Finance Director]. That is something that is an opportunity with the retirement. With the strategic plan going on. So this is not like anyone had been planning anything behind your back. We are just trying to figure out what we do next. I want to assure you that I am supportive of you as I noted in my discussion this morning. I said it was pretty routine in educational institutions to bring people back. I hope that you understand that there is not a monolith against you and we are supportive and we do care about you and we care about all of our employees. I know there is some disappointment on your part. But this is an opportunity for us to pause and not do business as usual. And that's what this issue is really about. No decisions have been made yet. I just wanted to express that so you understand.

Cubbison: I appreciate that, Supervisor McGourty. But I beg to differ. There are no tasks in this office that can afford to pause during this transition. Perhaps that's the reason I was not given the appointment, but the appointment would have allowed me to carry out the duties and would have allowed me to attract some employees to this office. But now it's in a state of flux and transition and it's difficult to encourage people to want to work in an office that appears to be possibly in some type of transition and nobody knows where they will end up. But the tasks that this office has to perform cannot pause. We cannot stop the level of work that we are trying to accomplish with the property tax system being implemented and trying to get tax bills out over the next two weeks, along with the huge finance system upgrade. Those tasks cannot afford to be paused. They need to be achieved or there will be consequences to the organization.

* * *

The Board then grudgingly voted 3-2 in favor of approving $12k for Mr. Weer’s assistance during the transition, Supervisors Gjerde and Williams dissented, having complained earlier about some arcane state law that discourages hiring retired people back too soon and requires a Board vote to do so. They had also complained that Ms. Cubbison shouldn’t need the extra help since she’s been Assistant Auditor for three years now. Ms. Cubbison said that that Mr. Weer had decided to retire somewhat unexpectedly and that she didn't have any control over the timing and certain information and processes that are now underway require his background knowledge and assistance.

* * *

 Ms. Cubbison deserves five-star credit for standing up to the Board, the CEO, and the DA like she has, now suffering insult from them for the crime of guarding the public purse. And we agree with her that the Auditor’s office has more than the usual workload currently because of the County’s long-delayed property tax system upgrade, along with the other tasks for this time of year. We further agree that this exchange demonstrates why the Auditor and Tax Collector positions should not be combined and put under the thumb of a weak Board of Supervisors and a tyrannical CEO. That’s a formula for major fiscal mischief that the people who set up those independent elected offices specifically were trying to prevent. If anyone messes with the Auditor or her office the AVA promises all-out war. PS. Gjerde and Williams' weasely (and suspect) references to state law are simply disgraceful.)

* * *

A READER WRITES: Sorry, but personally, and with some knowledge of how the Auditor's Office works, I think you and Mark are off base in glorifying the interim auditor. 

She does not have the required qualifications to hold the job for starters. Neither did Weer. She wants to be grandfathered in like he was.

Why are we rehiring Weer at $12,000 extra expense to do work that the acting auditor should be? Apparently, because she doesn't know how.

The whining, snarky comments she made as attributed in the AVA are an embarrassment and underscore her lack of professional abilities.

Good fiscal management belongs in the hands of qualified people, which is why creating an independent Chief Finance Officer who reports to the Board of Supervisors and not the CEO makes good sense.

Stop the whining, and do the job. If you can't get out of the way.

* * *

ED REPLY: This should not devolve into a personal or personnel dispute. If Ms. Cubbison isn't qualified let the Human Resources department weigh in. In most county jobs the position description usually says “or equivalent experience,” or some such. So someone must have determined that before she was hired as Assistant Auditor. And if you want to get into “qualifications,” let's talk about the qualifications of the CEO’s so-called "finance team" which the CEO wants to replace the Auditor with.

We were not “glorifying” Ms. Cubbison. we’re just agreeing with her that the situation has not been handled well. 

Obviously, somebody has to be in the position so that the various required Auditor's Office tasks get done. If you want to propose a more qualified candidate, let's see them. We know that finding independent Auditors for any such work in Mendo these days is very difficult and expensive. There are not many candidates to begin with. The state has requirements and deadlines that Auditors must meet and they can't fiddle-fart around with them while you and others argue minor points about qualifications and travel reimbursement requests.

As Supervisor Haschack noted, Mr. Weer does seem to have left the County in the lurch by retiring before his term was up. We don't know what work was in process at the time, but we assume that some of the things Mr. Weer was doing were left incomplete and it's reasonable to expect that Ms. Cubbison would need help finishing them. The big property tax system upgrade alone is a huge challenge all its own and should not be relegated to minor training arguments.

The Auditor is not responsible for “good fiscal management”of the County and you will not find that in her job description. The CEO is. The CEO already “reports to the Board” and we have yet to see her make good on her promises to provide the most basic budget reports. Creating a Finance Director under the CEO will do nothing for “good fiscal management” because the CEO refuses to do that. The Auditor's job is much more narrow and particular. And it should remain independent of executive or political influence.

We disagree with the reader’s assertion that her remarks were “snarky” or “an embarrassment.” Faced with deadlines and foot-dragging by the CEO and the Supervisors she was simply explaining why she needed some help from Mr Weer to finish necessary tasks. Remember, the request was put forward a month ago and nothing was done as deadlines approached. 

The reader’s reference to an “independent Chief Finance Officer who reports to the Board of Supervisors” is a contradiction in terms. 

Every week we have to provide an impressive collection of detailed jargonized paperwork to the Postal Service just to get our papers mailed out. If the Major suddenly “retired” tomorrow, we'd need to ask him to come back and help crank it out because, like the Auditor's office, we're small, have no extra time and staff sitting around idle to undergo training, and the Post Office will not let us “pause” while someone new figures out how to do their tedious paperwork every week.

* * *

THE READER RESPONDS: Let's face it. The auditor flap is being used by the AVA to continue the “let's get Carmel Angelo crusade.” 

Ms. Angelo has announced her retirement for Fall, 2022. She is not going anywhere until then. So keep pissing in the wind if you choose. Or perhaps the AVA could help illuminate the difference between CAO, and the current CEO model of management and whether the county should return to the CAO model that it used for years. That, of course, requires strong leadership at the board level. Is that there? In the meantime, a close examination of the situation might lead to better candidates to replace Ms. Angelo, and a more informed board. Geez, what a public service instead of the constant, and chronic, rants.

Re the interim auditor. Her whining and shifting blame is legendary among county offices. Her ineptness on occasion is startling. Delaying reimbursements to county employees because she fails to understand contractual requirements. Repeated paper work glitches that she of course blames on others. 

Why does she refuse to submit her professional resume for review? Why won't she allow her personnel file to be open for review. Why?

There are former employees have spoken up. Are you talking to them?

This is bigger and more important than the crusade to push Angelo out the door sooner than her announced departure.

* * *

ED REPLY: If we are on a crusade, it’s not to “get Carmel Angelo” or “push her out the door sooner than her announced departure.” The guilty always personalize arguments, that criticism must be inspired by personal malice because, usually, it's true. Nope, we simply don't think the County is being run very well and we try to explain why we think so. Argue the facts, not the personal. We think it's obvious that present management is not only creating unnecessary turmoil in County offices, the CEO's mismanagement is costing taxpayers too much money and probably incurring debt far into the future. We're hardly alone in thinking the county is badly managed.

Ms. Angelo deserves credit for stepping into the breach back in 2010 when somebody needed to deal with the budget crunch and take unpopular steps to reduce staff and spending in the context of a weak Board of Supervisors, two of whom, Kendall Smith and David Colfax, wouldn’t even take a voluntary pay cut like they ordered everyone else to do, and two of whom were certifiable. Someone had to take the wheel, and Ms. Angelo did. She also has responded reasonably well to several disasters that have hit the County in recent years. 

It's not like she's a volunteer. Ms. A is well paid and this is all part of her job (Uh, speaking of credentials, Angelo is an RN, not an administrator.). CEO Angelo was certainly an improvement over her predecessor, Tom ‘I’ll get back to you on that’ Mitchell, a man so incompetent it was thrilling to watch him in un-action.

On the other hand, Ms. Angelo, an un-elected person, has consistently ignored her own Board, refusing to do basic budget reports, putting major promotions and raises of her top staffer-pals on the consent calendar, firing senior staffers who dare to disagree with her, starting gratuitous beefs with the Sheriff, promoting over-priced projects without offering alternatives, and other dubious actions which we see as our job to point out.

As to the specific points the reader makes:

“Delaying reimbursements to county employees”?

Those County employees happened to be lawyers in the DA’s office. Boo hoo. Can't chisel on your reimbursement chits, boys and girls? Tough it out. County taxpayers should be delighted that the vigilant Ms. Cubbison not only stands up to these cry babies, she demands that public money be spent to public benefit.

We don’t know why Ms. Cubbison won’t allow her personnel file to be “open for review.” Review by whom? She's clearly well-qualified if not by some bogus degree from a four-year diploma mill but by the mere fact of her three years of experience in the office doing the work, preceded by ten years of well-regarded green-eye-shade work for Howard Dashiell at the Transportation Department. We assume the Board has seen it, though. But as we said before, that personnel file question could be asked of the CEO’s finance team as well.

No, we have not spoken to any former employees of the Auditor’s office, but if they want to weigh in, they’re welcome to, including anonymously as this reader is doing.

We are neutral on the CEO/CAO question because the reader is right, the Board hasn’t shown any managerial competency either. So rather than debating that question, they should instead focus more on upgrading their management procedures and systems, not upgrading senior staffers pay and perks.

Except for the AVA and Jim Shields, the CEO and Supervisors enjoy an unquestioning media environment in Mendocino County which does minimal reporting of the meetings and activities of the Board and staff and the meager “reporting” they do is… Well, there's a diff between reporting and public relations.

The CEO and Board put out their reams of material and seemingly endless meetings almost weekly and they should get used to the fact that much of it deserves continuing scrutiny and critical coverage, pissing in the wind as it may be.

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