Mendocino County Supervisor sat silent as they were chastised Tuesday for arbitrarily removing elected Auditor Chamise Cubbison from office without a hearing.
Chris Andrian, a noted Sonoma County lawyer, ripped board members for denying Cubbison due process on Oct. 17, and damaging her professional reputation based solely on District Attorney David Eyster’s decision four days earlier to file a felony charge against her for “misappropriation of public funds.”
Andrian charged that the board’s unusual action underscores how the Cubbison case is “more political than legal.”
The Supervisors’ controversial move, said Andrian, poses a threat to independent oversight of county finances. In 54 of California’s 58 counties, the Auditor-Controller is an independent, nonpartisan elected office established to provide various accounting and property tax administration services to the county government, special districts, schools, and cities.
A somber Cubbison stood silently by Andrian’s side as he pressed her case.
Andrian zeroed in on the board’s reliance on Eyster’s charging decision given questions raised about the DA’s public entanglements with Cubbison and other elected auditors over his office’s own spending, including travel reimbursements and use of asset forfeiture funds to cover expenses.
Andrian described Eyster’s criminal case against Cubbison as “very weak,” and complicated because of the DA’s bias against Cubbison and his documented effort to block her appointment two years ago as interim auditor.
“She will defend herself in court,” said Andrian.
Andrian’s legal wrath on Tuesday was directed at board members for their highly unusual move against an elected county official without a hearing,
“You acted as judge, jury and executioner,” declared Andrian.
Andrian addressed the board under a special item on Tuesday’s board agenda offering Cubbison an after the fact opportunity to defend herself. He said he is consulting with specialists in California law governing removal of elected officials.
“Your action has damaged her,” said Andrian.
Andrian argued that county supervisors should have had facts and not accusations before removing an elected Auditor from office. He reminded the board that there is no allegation in Eyster’s criminal complaint that Cubbison personally benefited from $68,000 in extra pay made to the county’s former payroll manager during the Covid pandemic, or that county money was at risk.
Supervisor John Haschak was the only board member to speak after hearing from Andrian, and about a half dozen Cubbison supporters.
Haschak questioned an outside San Francisco attorney advising the board on Cubbison’s suspension about whether she had ‘any problem’ with the board suspending Cubbison two weeks ago without a hearing.
Morin Jacobs, the San Francisco lawyer advising the board on the Cubbison suspension, refused to answer publicly.
“That is a question I am happy to respond to in a confidential setting, but I won’t do that in an open setting this afternoon,” said Jacobs.
DA Eyster, who has battled with three auditors over his office spending and travel reimbursements during his 12-year tenure, publicly targeted Cubbison when retiring Auditor Lloyd Weer recommended that she be appointed interim auditor to fill out his term. Eyster was successful in blocking her appointment but after the Board of Supervisors forced the consolidation of the Auditor/Controller and Treasurer/Tax Collector offices over the objections of senior county finance officials and civic leaders, Cubbison ran for election and won to become department head.
Cubbison’s victory celebration, however, was short lived. The combined offices have been plagued by staff shortages, an exodus of experienced employees, software program malfunctions, and relentless requests from some board members for statistical information that has been difficult to gather or with no history.
Board members led by Supervisors Ted Williams and Glenn McGourty have pushed to further consolidate office operations into a new Department of Finance, which would be more closely associated with the board office and the County Executive Office.
Neither Supervisors nor DA Eyster are publicly discussing their reasons behind criminally charging Cubbison, and then suspending her without pay, and appointing a deputy in the county executive office to be acting Auditor/Treasurer.
Cubbison supporters say the controversial appointment brings the board one step closer to abolishing the combined offices into the new finance department, removing the oversight of experienced county finance employees.
Sara Pierce, the new acting Auditor/Treasurer, made an appearance before the Board Tuesday morning and suggested she was surprised to learn ‘outside’ banking accounts existed within the newly combined offices. That and other concerns have led her to refuse to sign off on a long awaited audit for fiscal year 2021-2022, said Pierce.
Pierce’s comments were immediately dismissed by experienced county finance personnel.
In fact, the California Government Code allows outside bank accounts, for example, to be set up by county personnel for payroll tax payments, acceptance of credit/debit card and online bill payments.
Under Code 53682, a county Treasurer may deposit funds in safe and secure outside accounts if there is a “public advantage.”
Former county Treasurer Shari Schapmire scoffed at the new concerns.
“Money does not take care of itself. Experience and expertise matter,” said Schapmire, who spent a total of 40 years in the county Treasurer’s Office.
Schapmire warned that “during this Auditor’s Office takeover, there will be many, many items that are discovered and simply are not understood by those unfamiliar with the operations of a county Auditor’s Office.’
“I sincerely hope this lack of understanding is not used as a weapon to unfairly discredit Chamise Cubbison,” said Schapmire, who served 15 years as county Treasurer-Tax Collector.
Attorney Andrian said the Pierce report to the board earlier Tuesday was misguided and made in a bid to suggest wrongdoing.
“Ms. Cubbison was on top of this, and after taking over, began to review and seek statements from the banks handling the outside accounts. There is nothing new here,” he said.
Pierce responded at the end of the day.
“The concern is not related to the fact there are accounts held at another banking institution. The concern relates to numerous accounts being held outside of the treasury, or in other terms are not within the control or oversight of the Auditor/Controller-Treasurer/Tax Collector as the designated signor. Additionally, as I noted in my comment today, the other concern is these accounts have not fully been disclosed to the outside auditors for review.”
Earlier, a large group of Cubbison supporters filled a small courtroom when the embattled Auditor and Paula June Kennedy, the county’s former payroll manager, were scheduled for a second time to be arraigned. Judge Keith Faulder allowed people to sit in the jury box because of the overcrowding.
Entry of pleas by both defendants was put over until Nov. 29. Public Defender Mary LeClair, who was recently appointed to represent Paula June Kennedy, Cubbison’s co-defendant, asked for the delay in order to review investigative reports surrounding the case.
Later, some of the same supporters appeared before the board with Andrian and Cubbison.
Board members were stoic and offered no reaction while listening to comments from a half dozen Cubbison supporters who questioned supervisors’ judgment.
Assistant County Auditor Megan Hunter said she was “appalled” by how Cubbison has been treated. Hunter described Cubbison as a hard-working department head who is the “most honest person I know.”
Val Muchowski, a longtime county Democratic Party leader, said she was ‘very upset’ that the board acted without providing Cubbison, an elected official, an opportunity to defend herself.
County taxpayers have a right to “an independent elected auditor and not someone selected by the board,” declared Muchowski.
Carrie Shattuck, an announced candidate for the board in next year’s election, accused the board of “overstepping” its boundaries. She said she strongly disagreed with the consolidation of more power with the County Executive Office.
In the end, however, board members ignored Andrian’s request to rescind their suspension of Cubbison.