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Screenshot of Monday’s meeting. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson attended via Zoom.
In 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 concluded that she’d engaged in retaliatory, harassing and/or bullying behavior.
The investigation also found that Paz Dominguez’s financial decisions have increased staff workload and caused financial losses to the county. A staff report for today’s hearing says a prior independent investigation into workplace misconduct, in 2018, reached similar conclusions.
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes explained to the board that a censure offers them an opportunity to reprimand Paz Dominguez, who, as an elected official, is not subject to the county’s typical progressive discipline measures.
“This is your board saying publicly that you don’t agree with the way the auditor-controller interacts with staff and believe her to be in violation of our abusive conduct policy,” Hayes said.
Prior to the vote, a number of department heads, including the district attorney, the sheriff, the director of public works and the director of planning and building, offered pointed criticisms of Paz Dominguez and urged the board to act.
Paz Dominguez herself was not in attendance, though as First District Supervisor Rex Bohn noted early on, her re-election campaign published a video to YouTube on Sunday in which she addresses some of the relevant matters.
Set to the kind of goofball music that might accompany a collection of sports bloopers, the video shows Paz Dominguez at a desk, reading from a heavily redacted copy of the 2018 investigation. She mocks the report’s spelling errors, its abundance of redactions and a selection of the employee allegations contained within.
Bohn said the video seemed demeaning to the employee who filed a grievance in 2018. (Hayes later said three employee complaints were filed in 2018 while another seven complaints were investigated during the recent inquiry. All 10 were substantiated, she said.) Bohn also defended the level of redactions, saying they were necessary to protect employee rights and avoid the type of retaliation described in the reports’ findings.
Under questioning from the board, Hayes said she and her predecessor, Amy Nilsen, have made numerous attempts to improve matters in the Auditor-Controller’s Office, bringing in mentors, professional training services and outside accounting firms in hopes of improving communication and helping the office complete outstanding tasks.
Board Chair Virginia Bass noted that the Auditor-Controller’s Office recently retained local consultant Danny Kelley of Edge Caliber to provide coaching on communication skills and organize a think tank. Bass noted that the contract for these services didn’t go through the county’s usual hiring practices and called that fact “ironic.”
District Attorney Maggie Fleming called the day’s proceedings “sad,” adding that she greatly respects the auditor-controller’s mission — to ensure that county dollars are properly spent — and has worked “very hard” to support Paz Dominguez in that mission.
When problems in that office began to arise, Fleming said, she was happy to communicate with Paz Dominguez and even loaned her office “a highly capable staff person” of Paz Dominguez’s own choosing to help complete assignments.
The only problem she has with that office, she said, is that things aren’t getting done.
“In an effort to safeguard taxpayer dollars, reasonableness needs to apply,” Fleming said.
She went on to recount some negative experiences. In one example, Fleming explained when law enforcement officers seize assets from what they believe to be illegal drug activities, those assets are placed in a trust. If the original owner can prove that the assets came from a legitimate source, they must be returned.
“Under the current auditor-controller, these simple actions became very problematic because the auditor-controller’s office questioned why the money would go back,” Fleming said. “We sent multiple emails explaining that it’s a straightforward, court-ordered process, but it took many months for [these actions] to become reasonably efficient.”
Another program calls for a percentage of seized funds to go back into the community to support organizations that offer positive activities for children. The DA’s Office has been trying since June to get the Auditor-Controller’s Office to set up the necessary trust fund account, sending multiple emails, but it has yet to be completed, Fleming said.
“I just want to say … I am 100 percent in favor of protecting taxpayer dollars, and our office will prosecute any county employees who steal or otherwise misuse county funds,” she said. But some processes are as straightforward as they appear, she added.
“Clearly the current situation needs improvement,” Fleming said. “I think that’s going to happen by focusing on facts and evidence, not by broad brush accusations. For example, I did not appreciate the broad brush accusation that county department heads have encouraged individual employees within their departments to complain. I would never do that because I only want to improve the situation.”
Planning and Building Director John Ford also lamented having to be there this morning, saying he and his employees have worked hard not to get embroiled in the negativity, but he agreed with Fleming that seemingly simple processes keep getting caught up in the Auditor-Controller’s Office.
He also mentioned the challenges brought on by that office’s failure to complete the county’s single audit two years in a row, saying his department is now having to develop a budget based on estimated fund balances.
“We haven’t been able to reconcile that for three years in a row,” Ford said.
He added that the county can’t apply for its allotted $4.4 million in Community Development Block Grant funding until that single audit is complete, and another $14.3 million in funding from the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control has yet to be allocated because the A-C’s office hasn’t responded to emails seeking guidance.
Ford also mentioned a new payroll process that caused departed employees to continue getting paychecks after they’d left the county’s employ, and he added his own anecdote: “I personally still do not have a correct W2 [tax form],” he said. “It’s now April 4, 11 days before my taxes are due.”
Sheriff William Honsal echoed these concerns, saying it’s difficult to take on an issue when a colleague or subordinate is “failing to do their job.”
“This is going to be the third budget cycle now that we’re going [into] without knowing what the bottom line is,” Honsal said, adding that many important tasks of that office aren’t getting done, and payroll problems have only gotten worse since the function was moved back to Paz Dominguez’s office.
“Something needs to happen,” Honsal said. “You as a board need to do whatever you need to do to reestablish some consistency — making sure our bills get paid, making sure our vendors are properly paid, making sure our trust funds are properly taken care of.”
The sheriff said he reached out to Paz Dominguez before March 1, asking her to address any issues she may have about his office with him directly before going public with them. “And there was nothing,” he said. “No response back. And so that’s unprofessional.” He called Paz Dominguez’s presentation at the March 1 Board of Supervisors meeting a “public spectacle” and “inappropriate.”
Tom Mattson, the county’s public works director, said he’s never seen a situation like this in his 24 years with the county. Because the 2019-20 single audit has yet to be completed, his department alone has left $674,000 on the table while another $200,000 for basic road maintenance is being held, “which is extremely scary to the department because, as you are aware, the biggest bipartisan infrastructure bill that I’ve ever seen is sitting out there, getting ready to roll out programs.”
When the matter came back before the board, they reminded each other that the issue at hand was really the recent hostile workplace findings, though Hayes and Bass both said they’d like to start removing some of the un-mandated tasks from the Auditor-Controller’s Office.
Bass said she has personally witnessed hostility from that office. Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said, “It’s critical that we treat each other with respect and also all of our staff. They deserve that respect.”
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, who attended via Zoom, said the board was really talking about just one issue today: the complaints filed by county workers. “We have employees that need that protection, and they need the representation in that regard,” he said.
But Bohn noted that the recent investigation also mentioned financial losses that have happened as a result of Paz Dominguez’s actions. He said he’s received many calls from county vendors who can’t get paid.
“This has been a problem for three years now. … ,” he said. “There’s no getting along. The pattern of behavior is here.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell addressed county department heads, saying, “I feel your frustrations and it creates such a terrible, stressful workplace when you don’t know whether you’re going to get answers, whether you’re going to get an email back, whether you can get into the office. And also to have your integrity questioned is not anything very comfortable to go through.”
Bohn wound up making the motion to pass the censure resolution and Bushnell seconded it. The vote was unanimous, 5-0.
UPDATE, 4:09 p.m.:
The other major matter on the agenda Monday regarded the misconduct complaint against Bushnell that recently came to light following a Public Records Act request from the Outpost. You can read more about the complaint in our post from last week, but in essence it was a grievance filed by a county planner alleging that Bushnell interfered in the cannabis permitting process by advocating on behalf of an applicant while disregarding evidence of county code violations.
Bushnell has denied the allegations and said she believed the dispute had been resolved in follow-up meetings.
The board today unanimously approved an amendment to its own code of conduct and ethics rules, changing the employee grievance process to allow complaints to be reviewed by a committee composed of the county administrative officer, the human resources director and county counsel.
That committee would evaluate the complaint to determine whether a formal investigation through a neutral third party is necessary. A staff report goes on to explain:
The board unanimously agreed to implement this new policy, and in the process they asked the newly approved committee to investigate the allegation against Bushnell.
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