Yolo County voters will decide next month whether the elected office of auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector should be eliminated and replaced instead with that of a finance director appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
Measure H marks the third time in the past 26 years that voters have faced the issue on the ballot. Similar measures were defeated in 1986 and 1998.
If passed, current Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector Howard Newens — who has held the office since 2002 and favors the change — would serve out the remainder of his term until December 2014. At that point, a director of finance would be appointed by supervisors.
The move essentially would combine the fiscal functions currently performed by the county administrator’s office — budget issues and financial planning — with those of Newens’ office, which includes most countywide accounting, auditing, collections, cash management and investment activity.
And while supporters argue that the move would increase county efficiency and save money, opponents say eliminating the elected office also would eliminate independent oversight.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this summer to place the measure on the ballot.
At the time, they pointed to a successful pilot project over the past year in which Newens and County Administrator Patrick Blacklock collaborated on the county budget in a way that allowed Blacklock to keep vacant two positions — a chief budget analyst and a principal management analyst. Continuing to consolidate budgeting within a department of finance would allow those positions to remain vacant, savings hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, Blacklock has said.
That collaboration only happened because Newens was willing to participate, something that might not necessarily happen with his successors, noted Supervisor Matt Rexroad of Woodland.
“People take this for granted,” Rexroad said. “We have a very good team right now and I credit (Blacklock and others). It’s a good team working to produce a good budget and that hasn’t always been the case. Independent elected officials can go their own way if they want to.”
Another motivating factor for supervisors is the technical nature of the job itself, and the expertise and knowledge of both county operations and financial matters that might not necessarily exist in future candidates for the office.
“Matt Rexroad could be elected to that office … and that wouldn’t go well for anyone,” Rexroad said. “Few people can do that job well.”
In fact, Newens has said, “anyone in town who is a CPA could decide to run for the office, but it’s not like running a business. It’s a very different animal.”
With an appointed position, he said, “we can stipulate that you have to have experience in county government.”
Supervisors also would be able to recruit candidates from outside the county if needed and implement performance evaluations, Newens said.
But opponent Kumar Sah, a Yolo County resident and CPA who works for the state controller’s office, says an appointed finance director would be beholden to supervisors, rather than to voters.
“To be appointed by the very people they are supposed to keep an eye on makes for a lack of check and balance,” Sah said. “With most appointed positions, their allegiance tends to always be with the people who appoint them.
“We want an objective person in office,” he added. “(We want) somebody who would be able to stand up to the supervisors when they need to, as an impartial and objective individual looking out for the citizens’ best interest.”
Should Measure H pass, independent oversight would come in the form of a finance oversight committee composed of representatives of Yolo County cities, school districts and special districts, as well as the public at large, and the measure also would require independent audits of the finance department.
Supporters have noted that not only have many counties in California switched from elected to appointed offices, but most cities within Yolo County use appointed finance directors as well.
Sah is concerned, though, that the move creates a dangerous precedent.
“What’s next?” he asked. “Do we get the county clerk’s office appointed? What about the public guardian, a very crucial function? Will they want to put one of their own cronies in there?”
That’s an entirely different debate, Rexroad said.
“This is about our financial house. We’re looking to take advantage of efficiencies here,” he said, adding, “to what end would the opponents suggest we go? Do we elect our mental health director?”
Joining Sah in opposition to Measure H is Thomas Randall, who has led the fight against recent school parcel taxes in Davis, including Measure E, which will be on the November ballot alongside Measure H.
Randall opposes the move from elected office to appointed position because, he said, “during these difficult economic times, public involvement in the selection of the auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector is crucial, especially due to the many special tax and bond ballot measures that have been passed in various electoral districts in Yolo County in recent years, which relate to the need for this office to remain as an elective one to maintain public accountability.”
Randall added that, “some of the proponents of Measure E … are supporters of Measure H as well.”
With just weeks to go before the November election, Sah is hoping to ramp up the No on Measure H campaign by “educating voters.”
“That’s all I want to do. If they research it and go along with the supervisors, I’m OK with that,” he said. “I just want them to be educated.”
But Sah also said the fact that supervisors have put the plan back on the ballot despite voters having turned it down twice already “is almost an insult.”
“We have sent a very loud and clear message … telling them, ‘Stop. We don’t want to hand our power over to you,’ ” Sah said.
“When I see this back on the ballot again, it doesn’t make me happy.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy