At a special meeting Monday morning, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to censure auditor-controller Karen Paz Dominguez over the findings of a recent independent investigation, which found that she s was engaged in acts of retaliation, harassment and/or intimidation.
The investigation also found that Paz Dominguez’s financial decisions increased staff workload and caused financial loss to the county. A staff report for today’s hearing says an earlier independent investigation into workplace misconduct, in 2018, came to similar conclusions.
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes told the council that a censure provides them with an opportunity to reprimand Paz Dominguez, who as an elected official is not subject to the progressive discipline typical of the county.
“This is your board saying publicly that you disagree with the way the auditor-controller interacts with staff and that you believe it violates our abusive conduct policy,” a said Hayes.
Prior to the vote, a number of department heads, including the district attorney, sheriff, director of public works and director of planning and construction, issued pointed criticisms of Paz Dominguez and urged the board to act.
Paz Dominguez herself was not present, although, as noted by First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, her re-election campaign released a video on YouTube on Sunday in which she addresses some of the relevant issues.
On the kind of goofball music that could accompany a collection of sports bloopers, the video shows Paz Dominguez at a desk, reading a heavily redacted copy of the 2018 survey. She mocks the report’s spelling errors, its abundance of redactions and a selection of employee allegations it contains.
Bohn said the video seemed demeaning to the employee who filed a grievance in 2018. (Hayes later said that three employee complaints were filed in 2018 while seven other complaints were filed. investigation during the recent investigation. All 10 were founded, she said.) Bohn also defended the level of redactions, saying they were necessary to protect employees’ rights and avoid the type of retaliation described in the conclusions of the reports.
When questioned by the board of directors, Hayes said that she and her predecessor, Amy Nilsen, had made numerous attempts to improve things within the auditor-comptroller’s office, bringing in mentors, training services professional and external accounting firms in hopes of improving communication and assisting the office. complete outstanding tasks.
Board Chair Virginia Bass noted that the Office of the Auditor-Comptroller recently hired local consultant Danny Kelley of Edge Caliber to provide coaching on communication skills and organize a focus group. Bass noted that the contract for these services did not follow typical county hiring practices and called the fact “ironic.”
District Attorney Maggie Fleming called the day’s proceedings “sad,” adding that she greatly respects the auditor-comptroller’s job – to make sure county dollars are spent properly – and worked “very hard” to support Paz Dominguez in this mission.
When problems in that office began to arise, Fleming said, she was happy to communicate with Paz Dominguez and even lent her office “a highly capable staff member” chosen by Paz Dominguez to help with the tasks. .
The only problem she has with this office, she says, is that things don’t get done.
“In an effort to protect taxpayers’ money, reasonableness must apply,” Fleming said.
She then recounted some negative experiences. In one example, Fleming explained that when law enforcement officers seize assets from what they believe to be illegal drug-related activities, those assets are placed in a trust. If the original owner can prove that the assets came from a legitimate source, they should be returned.
“Under the current auditor-comptroller, these simple actions became very problematic because the auditor-comptroller’s office wondered why the money would come back,” Fleming said. “We have sent several emails explaining that this is a simple, court-ordered process, but it has taken several months to complete. [these actions] become reasonably efficient.
Another program requires that a percentage of seized funds go in the community to support organizations that provide positive activities for children. The prosecutor’s office has been trying since June to get the auditor-comptroller’s office to create the necessary trust fund account, sending several emails, but that hasn’t been completed yet, Fleming said.
“I just want to say…I’m 100 percent in favor of protecting taxpayers’ money, and our office will prosecute any county employees who steal or misuse county funds,” she said. But some processes are as simple as they seem, she added.
“Clearly the current situation needs to be improved,” Fleming said. “I think this is going to happen by focusing on facts and evidence, not full-scale accusations. For example, I did not like the widespread accusation that county department heads encouraged individual employees within their departments to complain. I would never do that because I just want to make the situation better.
Planning and construction manager John Ford also lamented having to be there this morning, saying he and his staff had worked hard not to get sucked into the negativity, but he agreed with Fleming that seemingly simple processes continue to get caught up in the auditor-comptroller’s office. .
He also mentioned the challenges posed by that office’s failure to complete the county’s single audit two years in a row, saying his department must now develop a budget based on estimated fund balances.
“We haven’t been able to reconcile that for three straight years,” Ford said.
He added that the county cannot apply for its block funding of $4.4 million for community development until this one-time audit is completed, and another $14.3 million funding from the Office of Control. State cannabis has not yet been allocated because the AC office has not responded to emails requesting guidance.
Ford also mentioned a new payroll process that resulted in departing employees continuing to receive paychecks after leaving county employment, and he added his own anecdote: “Personally, I still don’t have a W2 correct. [tax form],” he said. “It’s now April 4th, 11 days before my taxes are due.”
Sheriff William Honsal echoed those concerns, saying it’s hard to tackle a problem when a co-worker or subordinate “fails to do their job”.
“It will be the third budget cycle now that we are going [into] without knowing what the end result is,” Honsal said, adding that many important tasks in this office are not being done and payroll issues have only gotten worse since the function was moved to the Paz office. Dominguez.
“Something has to happen,” Honsal said. “As a board, you need to do whatever you need to do to restore some consistency – make sure our bills are paid, make sure our suppliers are paid properly, make sure our trust funds are properly supported.”
The sheriff said he reached out to Paz Dominguez before March 1, asking her to address any issues she may have regarding her office directly with him before releasing it to the public. “And there was nothing,” he said. “No response back. And so it’s unprofessional. He called Paz Dominguez’s presentation at the March 1 supervisory board meeting a ‘public show’ and ‘inappropriate.’
Tom Mattson, director of public works for the county, said he had never seen a situation like this in his 24 years with the county. Because the 2019-20 one-time audit is yet to be completed, his department alone left $674,000 on the table while another $200,000 for basic road maintenance is withheld, “this which is extremely scary for the department because, as you know, the biggest bipartisan infrastructure bill I’ve ever seen is gearing up to roll out programs.
When the matter came back to council, they were reminded that the issue at hand was really the recent hostile workplace findings, although both Hayes and Bass said they would like start removing some of the non-mandated tasks of the Office of the Auditor-Comptroller.
Bass said she personally witnessed the hostility of this office. Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said, “It is critical that we treat each other and all of our staff with respect. They deserve that respect. »
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, who attended via Zoom, said the council was really only talking about one issue today: complaints filed by county employees. “We have employees who need this protection, and they need to be represented in this regard,” he said.
But Bohn noted that the recent investigation also mentioned financial losses resulting from Paz Dominguez’s actions. He said he had received numerous calls from vendors in the county who could not be paid.
“It’s been a problem for three years now. … ,” he said. “There is no agreement. The role model is here.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell addressed county department heads saying, “I feel your frustrations and it creates such a terrible and stressful place to work when you don’t know if you’re going to get answers, if you are going to receive a return e-mail, if you can come into the office. And also having your integrity questioned is not something very comfortable to go through.
Bohn ended up presenting the motion to pass the censure resolution and Bushnell seconded it. The vote was unanimous, 5-0.