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A Symbolic Censure

Supes reprimand auditor-controller as tensions continue to mount

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The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to censure Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez during a special April 4 meeting after an outside investigation sustained findings that she engaged in "retaliatory, harassing and/or bullying behavior," and made financial decisions that "resulted in increased staff workload and financial losses to the county."

The board's 5-0 vote on the auditor-controller kicked off a meeting that also saw the board consider an ethics complaint against Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, revamp its complaint process and huddle in closed session to discuss "anticipated litigation" from a group of environmental nonprofits challenging the board's recent approval of a large subdivision in Cutten.

The censure of Paz Dominguez is purely symbolic, a public expression of "disapproval," as the board has no power to discipline a fellow elected official or remove them from office, though some supervisors indicated they plan to consider removing some duties — like payroll services — from the Auditor-Controller's Office at a future meeting.

County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes said the investigation was launched in June based on seven separate employee complaints, and a final investigative report was received by the county last month and presented to the board in closed session. A staff report prepared for that March 22 closed session discussion says a prior outside investigation conducted in 2018 — which Hayes said was based on three employees' complaints — "reached similar conclusions."

After the board's vote, the Journal reached out to Paz Dominguez, who did not attend the April 4 meeting, and she released a statement decrying the censure as an act of "political theater."

"I welcome constructive feedback and I work to address it when it is fair, well-informed and openly communicated to me," she wrote. "The Board's censure vote today was none of those things. What occurred at today's Board meeting was political theater on the public's dime with the intent to influence an upcoming election as evidenced by the discriminatory proceedings held for me in my absence compared to the cordial and civil proceedings held for a member of the Board who is accused of behaviors for which there is actual evidence."

While Paz Dominguez notes the censure discussion occurred in her absence, it's unclear what would have prevented her from attending the meeting, which was publicly noticed three days earlier and at which Board Chair Virginia Bass mentioned looking for the auditor-controller, both in board chambers and online, seemingly hopeful she would be there to respond to the allegations and address the board as it mulled her censure.

A day prior, on April 3, Paz Dominguez posted a campaign video to YouTube mocking the 2018 investigative report after she'd received a copy that had been redacted to protect the identities of the complainants. In the video, Paz Dominguez said the document was redacted to the point that it was impossible to understand some of the allegations. She also said the "most horrible" accusation against her yet comes on page 16 of the 59-page report, which she said describes a staff member being disappointed to return from lunch to find the pizza and soda Paz Dominguez had bought for staff who helped move office furniture was all gone.

The staff report summary of the 2018 investigation's findings alleges Paz Dominguez "fostered an atmosphere of hostility, retaliation and bullying," while demonstrating a "lack of leadership" and blaming "her errors on her subordinates." The North Coast Journal has submitted requests under the California Public Records Act for both the 2018 and 2021 investigative reports and the county has indicated it is "in the process of reviewing" the documents "to determine whether these records can be disclosed in whole or in part, as allowed by state law."

The censure vote is the latest chapter in an escalating conflict between Paz Dominguez, the board and seemingly most of county government. She has repeatedly cast herself as a watchdog of public funds and charged that the county has loose fiscal controls that create widespread opportunities for fraud, while other department heads have alleged she is a poor communicator prone to making hyperbolic, unsubstantiated allegations while missing filing deadlines for state mandated financial reports — putting funding streams in jeopardy — and failing to perform other core functions of her office.

During the April 4 meeting, District Attorney Maggie Fleming said she's been waiting since July on the Auditor-Controller's Office to set up an asset forfeiture account to disperse $164,000 to nonprofits helping local kids. Planning Director John Ford said his department can't apply for more than $18 million in state funding because Paz Dominguez' office has not filed mandated financial reports, while Public Works Director Tom Mattson similarly said the county's failure to file an outstanding single audit with the state has resulted in the loss of $674,000 in state funding, while another $200,000 in road maintenance funds are on hold. Perhaps more troubling, he said, is that Caltrans has informed the county it will withhold all new funding until the mandated financial reports are filed, just as the Congress' $715 billion infrastructure package is rolling out.

In her statement, Paz Dominguez said the board's vote "encouraged the continued conflict and division."

Later in the meeting, the board began its budget process by hearing department head reports looking forward to fiscal year 2022-2023. Chief Financial Officer Tabitha Miller began her presentation by noting the county has not closed its books since the 2018-2019 fiscal year. When the Auditor-Controller's Office filed a long-outstanding end of year report from 2019-2020 with the State Controller's Office last month, Miller said she was excited to get a clearer picture of the county's finances. But she said she quickly realized the beginning fund balances in the report were different than the ending fund balances from the county's 2018-2019 reports, with a difference of $55.6 million.

"We are in a place where we really, truly do not know where our fund balance is," Miller said.

In other matters, the board voted unanimously to revamp its code of conduct and ethics rules. Under the changes, employee grievances will now be reviewed by a three-person committee consisting of the county administrative officer, county counsel and the human resources director, who will decide whether a formal investigation should be launched. If an investigation then substantiates the underlying allegations, that would be reported to the board in open session.

The prior policy required that such grievances be brought to the board of supervisors first in public session, which the board and staff said raised confidentiality concerns.

The issue came before the board after the Lost Coast Outpost filed a public records act request seeking documents related to a grievance a county planner filed against Bushnell late last year, alleging the supervisor interfered with the issuance of a cannabis permit on behalf of a constituent and then acted unprofessionally — berating staff — in a meeting with the applicant, the planner and Ford.

Bushnell has denied allegations that she did anything inappropriate and Hayes indicated the complaint had been dealt with through a conflict resolution process that included all parties and saw Bushnell complete a seven-hour, one-on-one training on "effective communication and board roles and responsibilities."

On April 4, the balance of the board voted unanimously to have the newly minted grievance committee consider Bushnell's case and whether it warrants an outside investigation.

Finally, the board met in closed session to discuss a letter from the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, Humboldt Baykeeper, the Northcoast Environmental Center, 350 Humboldt and Earthjustice charging that the county's environmental impact report for the North McKay Ranch subdivision, which seeks to build 320 residential units in Cutten, violates the California Environmental Quality Act. Specifically, the environmental groups charge the EIR understates the "severity of the project's greenhouse gas impacts" and fails to mitigate the project's impacts.

The groups urge the county to require the project be an "all-electric development" and provide bus passes to residents to mitigate impacts on climate change. The board reported no action on the letter when it came out of closed session April 4.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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