Although it's elected, the position of county auditor-controller is rarely the stuff of headlines. But the county's top fiscal job, which involves financial oversight of county agencies, budgeting and disbursement of county funds, has recently garnered some controversy, thanks in part to Assistant Auditor Karen Paz Dominguez, who first stepped into the spotlight at a Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting Nov. 7, using her allotted three minutes of public comment to tell the board the office was so severely understaffed it could not do its job properly.
That comment launched a series of long-form pieces by Ryan Burns at the Lost Coast Outpost about dysfunction in the department, Paz Dominguez's decision to run for the position of auditor-controller and the surprise resignation of current Auditor-Controller Joseph Mellett, who is due to retire April 27. Paz Dominguez's outspokenness about the department's failings has earned her both public and private censure — some from the very people whom, if she triumphs in June's election, she will be responsible for supervising.
If Paz Dominguez's assessment is correct, many of the issues in the department stem from a power struggle between herself and the payroll department, which she says has been responsible, in part, for a series of security breaches that left confidential employee information vulnerable to theft. In March, she alleges, an employee in the office sent digital copies of the entire county workforce's W-2s to another employee's private email account by accident. The employee, who had asked for his or her own W-2, opened it and saw Fourth District County Supervisor Virginia Bass' name. The employee's supervisor alerted the auditor-controller's office, according to Paz Dominguez.
This was one of a series of incidents Paz Dominguez tells the Journal she felt left out of the loop about but, when she went to Mellett for support, he reportedly told her to "not to interfere."
Paz Dominguez went to the Human Resources Department, which advised her to write a step-by-step guideline for payroll staff about her expectations. She did so but found out that the guidelines had to be given to the staff by Mellett. Mellett, she alleges, refused.
"He accused me of insubordination," says Paz Dominguez. "I told him, 'I'm just trying to do my job.'"
Paz Dominguez says Mellett then threatened to discipline her.
"He said, 'Go to your office, stop being hormonal, get your emotions in check,'" she says, demonstrating a dismissive hand wave Mellett allegedly directed at her afterward. Following the incident, Paz Dominguez says she filed a sexual harassement complaint against Mellett.
We reached out to county spokesperson Sean Quincey to discuss Paz Dominguez's allegations. Quincey said many of our questions would be better directed toward Mellett. The embattled auditor-controller — who had pledged to serve the year but, after Paz Dominguez's alleged complaint, announced he will instead resign April 27 — said he "could not discuss ongoing investigations."
But Paz Dominguez says she was also hit with a complaint by her coworkers, who allege that she has created a hostile work environment. Quincey confirmed that there have been "multiple complaints filed in the auditor-controller's office recently."
We also asked Mellett about issues with the W-2s and the chain-of-command relationship between his position and the payroll department, as well as Paz Dominguez's job performance. He declined to answer them. He is — he said — happy to be retiring.
"The beautiful weather and a variety of courthouse dramas made me decide to accelerate my exit date and I'm leaving in good conscience," he told the Journal in an email.
With Mellett's early departure, his post will be vacant until voters decide the race between Paz Dominguez and Michael Lorig, an accountant in the county Department of Health and Human Services, in June. But someone has to run the office in the interim and on the Saturday she sat down with the Journal, Paz Dominguez was anxiously looking ahead to the April 3 meeting of the board of supervisors, which was scheduled to discuss Mellett's departure and the possible recruitment process for an interim replacement.
Paz Dominguez fumed, calling the recruitment "retaliatory." She attended that meeting and again spoke at public comment, telling the board it should not engage in the "needless spending of public funds" to recruit someone for a temporary job, someone, she added, she would have to take time to train.
In a surprise move, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn seemed to agree with her, saying that he liked the idea of "circumventing the process." Maybe, he said, they could ask someone who's already in the system to step in, such as a retired annuitant. He pointed to Cheryl Dillingham, a retired annuitant and former employee with the auditor-controller's office currently aiding the county with ADA compliance, who happened to be in the room. The board asked Dillingham if she would temporarily take the job. She agreed. They unanimously voted her in.
"I had a few people from AC's office speak to me over the last few days, this was by far the most palatable option, by far," Bohn said during the meeting. "It's funny when the most obvious solution walks into the room."
Whether Dillingham's presence was a coincidence or some civic process theater is unclear, but it was, according to Terry Francke, legal counsel and founder of public forum watchdog CalAware, almost certainly a violation of California's open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act. We asked Francke to watch the video of the meeting for which Mellett's resignation and the recruitment process were agendized.
"The Brown Act requires that a local government body like the board of supervisors refrain from taking action on any item not appearing on the posted agenda for the meeting with a few exceptions not applicable in this instance," Francke replied in an email. "The board's reaction to the offer presented to them made it clear that not even they, much less the public, were given advance notice that the offer would be made. The board could cure and correct the violation by rescinding the appointment and placing the proposal on a future agenda, giving interested members of the public the opportunity to address the board on the issue."
We reached out to Bohn for comment on this issue but have not heard back.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct and clarify the amount of complaints allegedly lodged against Paz Dominguez, and the source of that information. The Journal regrets the error.