By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.