By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposal to switch the county’s top elected financial post to an appointed one.
Supervisors said such a move risked a public backlash at a time when calls for transparency and close fiscal oversight of government are widespread.
“I’m not sure this sends the right message to voters,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.
The proposal, advanced by county administrators, sought board approval for a ballot measure that would have asked voters whether they wanted to end their selection of the county’s auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector in favor of a Board of Supervisors’ appointment.
Switching to an appointed post could attract a stronger pool of candidates for the office and allow the county to apply higher minimum qualifications than those required by the state, administrators said.
Nine other 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.
But the move is opposed by many current and former elected financial officers statewide, who say it eliminates the independence of a key oversight and fiscal management post.
Tom Ford, who retired as Sonoma County’s elected treasurer-tax collector in early 2006, said he shared those concerns.
“I always felt that voters are smart enough to make their decision,” he said Tuesday, urging the board to kill the proposal.
Carrillo, Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt led opposition to the proposal, voicing strong reservations about changing the post to an appointed one.
The office has been a focus of heightened public scrutiny in the past two years amid an unprecedented round of county borrowing to shore up its pension system and the retirement of the former incumbent Rod Dole, now the county’s top-paid pensioner.
Dole’s appointed replacement, David Sundstrom, 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 autonomy of that office is crucial,” McGuire said.
Board veteran Valerie Brown endorsed the proposal and differed sharply with the other supervisors before joining them in the final vote.
She said voter selection of the auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector office, like that of county judges, often amounted to “just checking the boxes.”
She suggested that supervisors were better equipped to make the selection and she questioned a key argument against such a move: the need to preserve the supposed autonomy of other elected county officers.
As several of those officers sat in the audience, Brown called that claim “specious,” saying the board had ultimate authority over and accountability for county government.
“The ideology that says the accountability is there because it runs with the people” misses the point, she said. “The accountability is with us,” the board, she said.
Carrillo countered that switching the selection to a board appointment could be seen as undermining faith in democracy.
“I think it would be a mistake to move in this direction,” he said.
Sundstrom, who was appointed in December to fill the remainder of Dole’s term, stayed out of the debate. When he was hired, the former Orange County official pledged to run for the elected office in 2014 or apply for an appointed one. He did not speak before the board Tuesday.
Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, cast her no vote after voicing concerns about the estimated $125,000 to $250,000 cost of the ballot measure and its timing, on the heels of recent county budget struggles and amid a bid to reign in salary and pension costs.
“It’s simply not the right time,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.