Insiders or outsiders?
WITH INCUMBENTS STEPPING DOWN FROM THEIR POSTS as auditor/controller and assessor, the races for two of the county's top bean-counters are wide open.
The assessor is responsible for determining the value of pieces of property throughout the county, which determines the amount of property tax owners must pay. The auditor is basically the county's accountant, helping the county Board of Supervisors keep tabs on the money spent and received by more than 100 county departments.
The two races are similar in some regards: The long-sitting incumbent taps his assistant to follow in his footsteps, saying that only an insider could have the necessary experience to run the office. An outsider challenges, saying that a new, private-sector attitude is needed to improve operations. The race is being fought on this ground: Is a fresh perspective and attitude more important than literally decades of experience?
One of the biggest proponents of the outsiders is himself the consummate county insider -- former County Administrative Officer John Murray.
Murray, who worked with the departments until he retired last October, claims the assessor's department has been inaccessible and the auditor/controller slow and inaccurate. He is endorsing the outsiders while saying the insiders are "tainted by the poor product that has been coming out of those departments."
"It's not that I'm trying to keep people out of office. It's just that the only thing these people know is what they learned in that office. We need fresh ideas and approaches," Murray said.
But many think Murray has an ulterior motive: revenge. The former CAO was seen by some county staff as power-hungry. It was either Murray's way or no way. According to this line of thought, Murray is still carrying a grudge from his tenure when he unsuccessfully tried to exert control over both the auditor and assessor.
"I think Mr. Murray was not happy with the fact that he couldn't run the offices of elected officials," said candidate and assistant auditor Michael Giacone. "He is being vindictive against the departments where the incumbent is leaving."
Between the mean-spirited language and bookish job descriptions, the races have the surreal quality of the Hatfields and McCoys comparing tax returns. Who would have thought that year-end audit adjustments could be so contentious?
But before you choose which clan to go with, remember: Precious few policy differences exist between the candidates. This is a race of qualifications between experienced veterans and fresh-faced reformers. The voters must make a simple decision: Are you an innie or an outie?
It wasn't easy to find the battle for county auditor last week. You had to drive through the rustic hamlet of Loleta, climb up a country lane for about half a mile until you see the fire station on the left. Not the front door or the back door, but side door led visitors into the firemen's break room. There, with a microwave and motivational posters as a backdrop, two men make their case before a crowd of 18.
It may not look like much of a heated race, but to Michael Giacone and John Friedenbach, this is serious business. Friedenbach says Giacone would continue a tradition of inept and untimely accounting. Giacone says Friedenbach is simply unqualified for the position. The county auditor may be a glorified accountant, but make no mistake: These accountants can get mean.
It would seem like Giacone, assistant auditor for 14 years, would have the edge. After all, he is a department veteran with the backing of current auditor Neil Prince. And Giacone claims the job requires the kind of specialized skill only a seasoned department worker would have.
"I've been here," he said. "I don't think John Friedenbach has the qualifications to take on a job as complex as this one. He doesn't have any experience in government accounting."
But Giacone's long-time service is exactly where Friedenbach is aiming his campaign. Friedenbach starts from the idea that the current auditor has been doing a bad job, taking too much time and delivering sometimes inaccurate information. What Giacone has really learned in his decades of work in the county hasn't been expertise but rather incompetence, Friedenbach said.
"There is a long history of untimely and inaccurate reporting of the financial numbers," Friedenbach said. He's backing his claims up with several audits of the department performed by a firm in Yuba City. Those outside audits found that the department wasn't doing well in several categories, but the biggest problem was speed.
The auditor/controller is responsible for putting together annual reports for the county, providing the Board of Supervisors and individual department heads with oversight. The fiscal year closes in July and the outside audit suggested Aug. 1 as an acceptable deadline. Until last year, those reports had been coming out in November.
"For that financial information to be useful it has to be timely," Friedenbach said.
Giacone responded that the fiscal report had been delivered in a timely fashion in 2001 -- Oct. 5. "Our goal is Sept. 30," he said. The suggested Aug. 15 deadline "isn't a realistic date to accurately reflect the financial activity of the county. We have so much information to process and we depend on the other departments in the county to get information."
And even though he feels current Auditor Neil Prince is being unfairly maligned, Giacone said he would bring a new attitude to the department. "I am more into a teamwork-based approach to resolving issues," he said.
Friedenbach isn't buying it. "He is the assistant and he's been endorsed by Prince, so yes, I think their performance would be consistent." And in Friedenbach's eyes, consistency is a bad thing.
When the two candidates for county assessor squared off at the annual meeting of the Humboldt Association of Realtors Feb. 6, the air was tense. Would-be assessors Linda Hill and Bill Thomas took the podium in turn, trading barbs and vying for supremacy on one of the main issues in the race: Should the office open at 8 or 8:30 a.m.?
It was a moment indicative of the entire race. Hill (8:30 a.m.) and Thomas (8 a.m.) do not disagree on most of the major policy points in the race. Both believe the office should be more accessible to the public, and both agree mistakes have been made by the assessor in the past. That has left the candidates with two options -- either differentiate themselves based on their personal qualifications or hash out the finer points of office scheduling.
Much like the race for auditor, the contest for assessor revolves around what sort of person would be best-suited to lead a government office: the veteran with decades of experience and an intimate knowledge of the department's inner workings, or an outsider from the business community with the will and savvy to make the office more customer-friendly.
"I think it would help to have a private-sector attitude," Thomas said. "There's something I call `governmentalism,' which treats the public need for attention and service as a nuisance. It's time to replace that with a private sector attitude."
Thomas points to several examples of "governmentalism." Until Jan. 14 the office was only open from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. In 1998 the office radically reduced the official value of the Louisiana-Pacific mill in Samoa without warning special districts, such as fire districts, that depend on property tax. Also, he said, when someone wants to get a parcel map, the office only offers a large-scale version for $2.50. If you want an 8-1/2 by 11 version, you're out of luck.
"They avoid dealing with the public because it's a nuisance for them," Thomas said.
Oddly enough, Hill agrees. While she has been part of the office for 30 years and carries the endorsement of her boss, Ray Jerland, Hill said that she has been made aware of the need for change.
"I will make myself more available and accessible to taxpayers' questions and concerns," she said. While Hill thinks Jerland succeeded in providing fair and accurate property valuation, she said she diverges from him on the subject of attitude. "I believe our views may be different regarding customer service," she said.
Hill said that her experience makes her the most qualified. "I have experience with budgets. I have a knowledge of property tax laws he won't have. I know the office staff and how we operate. There's more to this office than just appraising properties."
Thomas said he felt his career as a private real estate appraiser was the perfect background for the job. "Ninety percent of the tax base in Humboldt County is in real estate, and I'm the only real estate appraiser," he said. "You must understand the basic valuation principles so you know what your staff is doing."
Hill's promise to be more accessible didn't hold water to Thomas. It is more likely a campaign pledge, he said -- politically motivated rather than genuine.
"As the campaign has progressed, the weight of her campaign has shifted to [accessibility]," he said.
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