WatchSonoma Watch

Supes pick Orange County administrator for top financial post

David Sundstrom


In a shake-up at the top of Sonoma County government, the Board of Supervisors on Monday appointed an Orange County official to Sonoma County’s vacant chief financial officer post.

David Sundstrom, 59, now the elected auditor-controller of Orange County, is to begin work as Sonoma County’s auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector Feb. 1.

His leadership role in setting government accounting standards and experience with public-employee pension overhaul and computerized financial management at a large urban county were reasons for his selection, several supervisors said.

“It’s a new challenge, a new day,” Sundstrom said after the unanimous board vote.

At county headquarters, the vote was seen as a clear move away from the 26-year tenure of Rod Dole, the former auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector.

Dole, who retired in May and now receives the largest county pension at $254,625, recommended Donna Dunk, the assistant auditor-controller and a 26-year county veteran, to be his successor.

But Dole sat in the audience and watched as the board went against that advice Monday. Other onlookers included nearly a dozen employees of Dole’s former office as well as Tom Ford, the former treasurer-tax collector, one of only two speakers from the audience. The other was Liz Yager, the county’s energy and sustainability manager. Both Ford and Yager voiced support for Dunk.

A third finalist interviewed for the job at the special Board of Supervisors meeting was Terri Velasquez, a former chief financial officer for Colorado Springs, Colo.

The interviews and selection were conducted in a public session because the job is an elected post with a term that will run through 2014. The annual salary is $208,644.

Of the three candidates, the board favored Sundstrom and Dunk, who has served as interim auditor-controller since Dole left. The board’s final decision came down to a preference for what several supervisors called “strong leadership” and “a new perspective” in the county’s top financial post.

“Now more than ever, significant and true leadership is necessary,” Board Chairman Efren Carrillo said.

Several supervisors praised Dunk’s county service, including seven years as assistant auditor-controller.

But Supervisors David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire voiced early support for Sundstrom, who previously was university auditor for the California State University system and now serves on the board that sets accounting standards for local and state governments nationwide.

Rabbitt said the choice boiled down to Dunk’s familiarity with the county “versus making that next leap” with a new leader.

Supervisor Valerie Brown supported Dunk, but ultimately joined the other four board members in voting for Sundstrom.

Brown voiced concerns about several contentious moves by Orange County to reduce retiree pension and health-care benefits without employees’ consent.

“You’ve pushed the envelope in terms of (retiree medical benefits) and retirement,” Brown said of Orange County’s overhauls, which retirees have challenged with some success in court. “But it’s been at a huge cost to workers, and that’s a problem for me.”

In an interview after his appointment, Sundstrom distanced himself from Orange County’s approach to overhauling benefits.

As a public leader, he said, he favored working with labor on pay and benefit changes.

“When you pull unilateral moves, you polarize the two sides,” he said. “I’m hoping that any concerns she has about any rough edges concerning my tenure in Orange County will be dissipated over time.”

Fiscal watchdogs who have taken aim at Sonoma County’s rising pension costs and the three rounds of borrowing it has used since 1993 to pay $617 million in unfunded retirement obligations — moves undertaken during Dole’s tenure — were pushing behind the scenes for Sundstrom’s appointment.

The county’s long-term unfunded pension obligations total $249 million. Unfunded retiree medical obligations are higher at $298 million. The combined sum represents 46 percent of the county’s $1.18 billion total annual budget.

“We need new ideas and new faces in order to lessen the consequences of the fiscal disaster we’re in,” said Tom Lynch of Guerneville, a county planning commissioner who has been a leading voice among those calling for an overhaul of retirement benefits.

Sundstrom was appointed to the elected Orange County auditor-controller post in 1996 before winning an election in 1998, four years after the county declared bankruptcy. He was re-elected in 2002, 2006 and 2010. His current annual pay is $182,000.

Asked by McGuire why he would want to move from a high-powered urban county in Southern California to a mostly rural one in Northern California, Sundstrom said he viewed his work in Orange County, including moves to restore financial health, as “mostly done.”

Sundstom also is an East Bay native and a Sonoma State University graduate. He said the move will bring him closer to relatives.

After the meeting Dunk said she was disappointed in the outcome but said she planned to remain in the auditor-controller’s office and had no plans to run for the seat should it remain an elected post in 2014.

County leaders are considering a ballot measure for next November that would ask voters to approve making the auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector an appointed chief financial officer position.

Sundstrom assured supervisors he would run in 2014 if that ballot measure did not come to pass or did not succeed. He also said he would not object to making his position an appointed one.

Dole was re-elected in November 2010 and retired with more than three years remaining in his seventh term.

He quickly left the board chambers after the meeting, declining comment.

29 Responses to “Supes pick Orange County administrator for top financial post”

  1. NOTUTOO says:

    What makes anybody think that Sundstrom won’t walk away with anything less than Dole did when it comes time for him to retire?

  2. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RS – “For some reason, local and state governments can raise fees, such as DMV, fire assessments, etc. without voter input.”
    This is not correct. Any fee increase, whether it be local or state, must now go to the voters. If not, you would have seen Brown raise DMV fees in a blink of an eye.

  3. Brian Baker says:

    Excellent. The end of the Dole era…as in public employees on the “dole”….

  4. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    RE: Let’s be reasonable – “These cuts are real, and will hurt real people, and they will be the most vulnerable among us.”

    I agree, but people like governor Brown want it both ways: he signed the California Dream Act (grants and scholarships for illegal immigrants) but then four weeks later claims we have to cut education (as leverage) for us to accept higher taxes and fees. I too agree that we should “have the right to vote along with the rest of Californians to see where the majority stands on the issue.” For some reason, local and state governments can raise fees, such as DMV, fire assessments, etc. without voter input. Voters struck down higher taxes twice (three?) times already, so bring it on.

    Until all government becomes far more accountable to the taxpayers on how they blow through our money, let’s vote. I just don’t think it’s gonna get approved.

    California has always had more of a ‘spending’ problem than ‘income’ problem; give government more money to spend, and they will, until that account is in the red, then it’s “Help, Mr. Wizard” all over again.

  5. Juvenal says:

    @Money Grubber

    “Latest study: public employee pensions in California are $ 500 BILLION UNDER-funded.”

    Money, the “latest study” is just the same old rubbish from Joe Nation and his plucky band of graduate students. Nation is not an actuary; nor is he an accountant.

    Why not just assume a negative 10% return on investment–that way we’re broke already.

  6. S. Jamberd says:

    @ JackRyan

    Courageous move… really???? Had the Board really been courageous, they would have selected the best candidate for the job regardless of voter perception. The public crucified Dunk just because she worked for Dole – “worked for” being the key word here… not “worked with”. The Board chose the popular candidate not the best candidate.

    I think it is ironic that 2 of the board members are up for reelection and instead of taking “a courageous step”
    and hiring the most qualified candidate, they pacified the public to ensure votes come 2012. Dunk got a raw deal and it’s Sonoma County’s loss. Instead we now have yet another politician. I don’t know about you, but as a taxpayer , I’m getting tired of politicians.

    Don’t you just love politics?

  7. Amy Thompson says:

    This first cut in the tree of public employee pensions is to root system. Kill the current system and if there is to be any kind of retirement plan, make it a 401k type plan.

    That is what the economics demand and what the taxpayers deserve.

  8. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @Union Guy – while I agree that the problems around pensions and retiree health benefits are being blown out of proportion, they are still problems that need to be addressed. Historically, the current percentage being paid towards public pensions is not unreasonable. What is scary though is their direction – rapidly rising. There is no need to panic, but we need to start bringing them under control in a reasonable, well thought out manner. Hopefully, David Sundstrom will be the one to do it for the County. He did it for Orange County, and they were in much worse shape.

  9. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – “Just look at Governor Brown’s major ‘cut’ just today. More smoke and mirrors, and just another effort to force taxpayers to accept an increase in sales taxes…”
    These ‘cuts’ will mean lower funding for schools and the poor, at a time when both are suffering. It is real, and it will happen. This State will continue its decline from what once made it great – strong investment in education and infrastructure.
    It’s really a simple equation: if spending is not less than revenues, then you have a deficit. This ‘cut’ was what was put into the budget, since Republicans would not allow taxes to be added to the ballot to let the public decide. There was some hope that revenue would pick up, but it didn’t happen, so now cuts will need to be made to close the gap. More cuts will be needed next year. Personally, I would be willing to pay more taxes to stop California’s slide, and I believe I should have the right to vote along with the rest of Californians to see where the majority stands on the issue. These cuts are real, and will hurt real people, and they will be the most vulnerable among us. If you want a low service state, with mostly minimum wage jobs, then I suggest you move to Texas.

  10. Jack Ryan says:


    It sounds to me like you had a vested interest in the continuation of the Dunk/Dole legacy.
    The board of supervisors took a courageous step in breaking away from the tried and FAILED, self-serving Dunk/Dole policies. If you are sore about that is because you probably stood to benefit, and now your gravy train is OVER!!!!

  11. sococitizen says:

    The Board made a mistake in hiring Sundstrom. Anyone familiar with all three of the candidates knows that he is the Orange County political version of Dole. Instead of making a sound business decision in the appointment of a new Auditor-Controller, once again the Board bowed to the misconceptions of the public and chose Sundstrom.

    The public forum was a political farce. Dunk’s presentation was informative and she answered all the questions posed to her in an articulate and factual manner. She knew her topic well. Sundstrom used the time to talk about a lot of nothing. At one point, Zane fell asleep during his presentation and McGuire wasn’t even paying attention. Yet this is the “new leadership” the Board has chosen? It was very apparent the Board had already chosen its candidate. Maybe it is time to get new leadership in the Board as this one seems to not have a grasp on reality and is single handedly running the County into the ground with its politcal jostling and wishy washy decision making.

    Dunk has been tainted by the “Rod Legacy”, yet anyone familiar with the ACTTC dept knows that Dunk is extremely smart, fiscally responsible and not a politican but an excellent accountant and department head, which is exactly what Sonoma County needs right now.

    I think it is time for change… a change of board of supervisors. It is thought that Sundstrom is the best candidate, yet I imagine that it will be quickly discovered that the County has traded one politician for another.

  12. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    RE: – Lets be Reasonable

    That’s correct, which is why I stated “…work its way out with the slash-and-burn method after the fact.”

    If you really think that government will make the necessary cuts prior to going bankrupt, your kidding yourself. Just look at Governor Brown’s major ‘cut’ just today. More smoke and mirrors, and just another effort to force taxpayers to accept an increase in sales taxes… oh, that’s right, the propaganda says ‘higher taxes on the rich’, and then mentions the sales tax increase as an afterthought. For only five years… like that will really happen. Not only will there be ‘extensions’ but we’ll see increases on the sales tax on top of what the governor now seeks.

    Luckily, if we just keep passing higher taxes and fees on ourselves, Sonoma County and the state of California won’t go bankrupt, in spite of projects like the California high-speed rail and SMART and billions in underfunded retirement liability.

    Reminds me of the old IRS joke on how to estimate your taxes; just sign the back of your paycheck over to the state and feds, they’ll call it good.

  13. Union Guy says:

    Stanford loves their headlines. Why don’t they make a return of 2.5% and call in $1.5 Trillion? Sounds more horrific. If you could fathom that these retirement systems work on projections of 30 to 50 years for their returns, you would get that a 10 year slump is not going to take them out. Get over the Stanford fantasy doom cryers… Of course, with the 20 year average of 9.2% and a 30 year average of 12%, I will be called the denier. Ok. Don’t let the facts get in the way of your silly opinions.

  14. Retired Cop says:

    Thank goodness I got out when I did.

  15. RICK JAMES says:

    Just a reminder that the woes of the economy are not due to public employee pension costs! Public employees did not create the economic conditions we are in, and when times are good, I heard no one claiming that public employees made too much money, or reaped to large a pension..probably because those in the private sector were collecting their handsome salaries and stock options. Stop blaming public employees…

  16. Money Grubber says:

    The ancient computer system of Sonoma County aside, the new man has his work cut out for him.

    Today’s news NOT covered in the Press Democrat ?

    Latest study: public employee pensions in California are $ 500 BILLION UNDER-funded.

    And you know what that means?

    Governor Jerry Brown’s mid year budget cut of only one billion dollars means absolutely nothing. Its all smoke and mirrors. Its all the same political lie to mislead the public into thinking all is okay with government spending.

    Google the story and realize that public pensions are soon to overwhelm government spending in all categories including education.

    They are growing in cost and the public is the one that is being targeted for higher taxes as you read this.

    I guess Sonoma County better get used to operating its ancient computer system for another 30 years because government funds are headed only in one direction:

  17. Juvenal says:

    Find an old picture of Bob Deis and draw a beard onto it. Look familiar?

  18. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RS – David Sundstrom was hired by Orange County after they had already gone bankrupt, so we only got an expert on how to get us OUT of financial trouble, not how to get into it…but then, we already know how to do that!

  19. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    Hey, this is good news. Sonoma County will have an in-house expert on how a county can go bankrupt and work its way out with the slash-and-burn method after the fact.

  20. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @John T – Let’s put the whole story out there, instead of your misleading one liner. This is from the Orange County Register:
    The county’s lawyers and two outside law firms hired as consultants say the county is not only entitled, but required to take back the funds lost in those earlier legislative deals. Their argument is that pulling $73.5 million for fiscal year 2011-2012 from property taxes that go to local schools now puts them on an even footing with other California counties who already take a similar local offset for what they lose in vehicle license fees.
    “It wasn’t until the state decided to cut us that we had any reason to dig back into the Revenue and Taxation Code,” said David Sundstrom, the county auditor-controller. It is Sundstrom who is responsible for calculating and allocating the school’s share of county property tax.
    “Under state law, the county should be treated like all other counties in the calculation,” wrote Campbell in his Nov. 10 letter directing Sundstrom to make sure the county receives its full share of property tax revenues. “California law and policy favoring uniform treatment is strong.”
    Prop. 98, which locks in a number of school funding formulas, requires the state to backfill the funding cut, said Campbell, who is board chairman.
    Seems to me that Mr Sundstrom did pretty well by the County, and schools shouldn’t suffer. This is part of the constant tug of war between the State and local governments. Apparently, the Junior College system may suffer 10-15 million statewide, since the state does not have to back fill funds, but the elementary and high schools shouldn’t be effected directly. The real problem here is that the State does not have proper funding, and continually raid local governments to make up for it.

  21. Do You Believe in Magic says:

    This guy is needed to shake up a county financial office long in need of an overhaul. To much inbreeding and to much “doing it the way we always have done it,” thinking.

    Maybe the county can get some honest, straight anwsers about it finances and some fresh ideas about how to make serious changes and cuts in the county budget to things back on track.

  22. Brian Brown says:

    Rod Dole $254,625 retirement?!

    Red carpet for David Sundstrom Please.

  23. truth in news says:

    What? Bob Dias couldn’t get his porche started to drive over and finish robbing the retirees here in Sonoma county?

  24. Jack Ryan says:

    @John T – can you give more details? How did he do this? School money is separate from what goes to counties…

  25. Money Grubber says:

    Just wait until Mr.Sundstrom gets a look at the “computerized financial management” that Sonoma County uses.

    He’ll likely flee BACK to Orange County !

    Or, maybe not. Maybe the ancient equipment that Sonoma County uses along with the way outdated software will take him back to his youthful days of his career.

  26. taxpayer says:

    nk you finally a step in the right direction

  27. John T says:

    Under his financial leadership Orange County also took $73.5 million from the local schools to fill a budget gap.

    County schools should be nervous when this hatchet guy comes to work.

  28. Jack Ryan says:

    The Board of Supervisors did an excellent job.

  29. Lets be Reasonable says:

    “Brown voiced concerns about several contentious moves by Orange County to reduce retiree pension and health-care benefits without employees’ consent.”
    Seriously!? You say this after what you did to SC retiree health benefits? – I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!