Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – A consultant has concluded that Humboldt County’s unusually controversial Auditor-Controller’s Office has high staff turnover and doesn’t prioritize its work efforts effectively.
Another in a series of reports on one of the county’s most important departments was presented to the Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 11 meeting.
The county is enlisting consulting firms to review the office’s management and performance, part of the fallout from claims made to supervisors last year by Assistant Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez, who has since been elected as Auditor-Controller and will assume the post in January. Last November, Dominguez told supervisors that the office’s lack of staffing has seriously undermined the county’s ability to oversee public funds and flag abuses.
Auditor-Controller Joe Mellett resigned last April. Supervisors appointed former Assistant County Administrative Officer Cheryl Dillingham as interim Auditor-Controller.
The office has been affected by internal conflicts – Dominguez reportedly filed a sexual harassment complaint against Mellett and she was the target of hostile workforce environment complaints.
At the supervisors meeting, Richard Mallory of Cooperative Personnel Services, a consulting firm hired by the county, described findings from a 12-week probe of the office’s operations done from March to May of this year.
He said the Auditor-Controller’s Office’s work environment and high staff turnover are of more concern that its level of staffing.
“It seemed as if they were more clogged up with a lack of prioritization and also caught up in sort of a negative work environment that was causing high turnover,” he told supervisors.
He added that when he discussed those findings with the office’s management staff members, they told him there isn’t a high level of turnover.
“But if you look at the statistics, there is,” Mallory said, adding that the office “has a very low percentage of high-tenured people and then a very high percentage of the very newest type employees.”
Staff surveys showed that “they were less positive about their work environment than were their comparable county colleagues.”
Mallory began his presentation by outlining the scale of the Auditor-Controller’s Office’s work – it’s responsible for $135.6 million in payments per year, amounting to 22,350 checks. He said the office’s management staff had “defensive” reactions to his suggestions and the office’s obsession with precise accounting is actually counter-productive.
He gave an example, saying supervisors had been concerned about utility payments being delayed. Mallory’s review revealed that some payments had been rejected by the office due to errors of less than 50 cents.
He questioned why that would be done, because “if the bill gets delayed and doesn’t get paid on time then the county gets a penalty a lot more than that.”
Board Chair Ryan Sundberg said that in one instance, that practice resulted in a utility service shut-off.
“That comes back to the maturity of the management itself,” Mallory said, acknowledging that an agency like the Auditor-Controller’s Office has to be “a little bit tough” but should strive for “win-win solutions.”
When Supervisor Rex Bohn summarized the situation by saying, “So we’re spending dollars to chase pennies,” Mallory responded, “Exactly.”
Mallory also suggested that an adversarial atmosphere exists. “Overall, I think that in the long term, there needs to be less of a feeling of ‘it’s us against you, we regulate you and we’ll just tell you when you’re wrong,’” he said. “It needs to be more of a feeling of, ‘Hey, we’re on the same team, let’s solve some problems together.”
Mallory’s report recommends that a “mentorship” program be implemented for the office’s management staff.
Supervisors approved that and other recommendations, including measures to “improve workflow,” creation of a “cross-departmental working group for improvement of the accounts payable process” and transferring payroll responsibilities to the Human Resources department.
There will be further reports related to the office, as Mallory’s firm has also evaluated the benefits of departmental consolidations.