Supervisors weigh letting voters say if top financial job should be non-elected
By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County voters this November could face the decision whether to end their say on who occupies the top financial post overseeing county government.
The proposal would eliminate the traditional countywide vote to select the auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector in favor of an appointment made by the Board of Supervisors.
The office-holder oversees the county’s $1.65 billion treasury, including school, community college and special district funds, serves on the county pension system board and manages county auditing, financial reporting, local tax collection and bond issuance.
The incumbent, David Sundstrom, was appointed in December to fill the remainder of a term vacated by the retirement of longtime auditor-controller Rod Dole. He receives an annual salary of $208,644, one of the highest in county government.
The Board of Supervisors is set to consider the proposal Tuesday.
County administrators say the move to an appointed post would attract a stronger pool of candidates for the office. It also would allow the county to apply performance evaluations and higher minimum qualifications than those currently required by the state.
But opponents say it takes a choice away from voters and eliminates the office’s independence from supervisors. That separation, current and former officials say, is vital to carry out the job’s key oversight and investment duties.
The proposal requires support from four supervisors to be placed on the ballot. At least two board members say they are unconvinced of the need for a change.
Supervisor Mike McGuire voiced skepticism that a switch to board appointment would improve accountability and financial oversight for county taxpayers.
“I’m looking at this proposal with a critical eye,” he said.
Supervisor David Rabbitt took aim at the supposed shortfall of qualified candidates should the job remain an elected one.
“One could say that about any elected position,” he said. Tinkering with voters’ choice risks being perceived as a power grab, he said.
Deputy County Administrator Chris Thomas said the county’s interest is to assure the office-holder continues to be a highly qualified “professional” with a “strong auditing and accounting presence.”
“I don’t see it as a power grab,” Thomas said. He fielded questions about the proposal in place of County Administrator Veronica Ferguson, who was on vacation last week.
Given voter approval, local governments are allowed to change some elected offices to appointed jobs.
Nine California counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara and Marin, have gone to an appointed post for their top financial officer. San Mateo County voters are set weigh in on the issue this November.
In Sonoma County, the discussion comes on the heels of a transition. Dole, who retired in May 2011, served as auditor-controller for 26 years and as treasurer-tax collector for his last five years. The two posts were combined in 2006.
In the hearing that led to his appointment in late 2011, Sundstrom pledged to run for the elected office in 2014 or apply for an appointed one.
The former Orange County auditor-controller said he has not changed his stance. “I can work under either structure,” he said last week. He declined to say if he had a preference.
Dole did not return a call requesting comment.
Statewide, the issue has divided local government. Administrators have voiced support for the change, while current or former elected financial officers have largely opposed the moves.
The California State Association of Counties and groups representing county financial officers have stayed out of the debate.
A California Senate committee on local governance, which heard testimony on the issue in 2010, also dropped its attempt to update state law on consolidations and changes to elected office.
Bill Pollacek, then the elected Contra Costa County treasurer-tax collector, told the committee that elected financial managers needed their autonomy to avoid undue political influence from supervisors.
“How can you expect a Board of Supervisors appointee to audit the county when he owes his position to the board?” Pollacek, now retired, said in an interview.
Tom Ford, who retired as Sonoma County’s treasurer-tax collector in early 2006, said he had mixed feelings about the proposal.
On the one hand, “the rumors of some people interested in running for the office send shivers up my spine,” he said. Without sharing names, he suggested they lacked qualifications and had political axes to grind. Changing the post to an appointed one could draw in better applicants and streamline county government, he said.
On the other hand, he said, the Board of Supervisors would be taking on a decision that also affects schools and special districts. Along with the Santa Rosa Junior College, those entities represent 55 percent of the $1.65 billion on deposit in the county treasury. The county’s finance chief oversees that fund and acts as the top fiscal agent and manager for all taxing districts and as tax collector for cities.
“Who is the proper appointing authority?” Ford asked. “It needs to be studied more than brought up and done on a Tuesday afternoon.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s chairwoman, said she expects a full debate on the issue this week. She voiced tentative support for advancing the decision to voters, while hedging that stance somewhat.
“I think there are good arguments on both sides,” she said. “I haven’t heard enough about the disadvantages yet. I could be persuaded to vote no on this Tuesday.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)