Dueling destinies

Auditor-controller contenders, formerly co-workers, defined by distinctions

Graciela Gutierrez

Graciela Gutierrez

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

If not for a fateful internet search, Graciela Gutierrez would not be where she is today.

A little over seven years ago, Gutierrez sat with her daughter Sylvia to offer guidance on college courses. Sylvia—second-youngest of four children, now all with degrees—planned to major in criminal justice; Gutierrez wanted to show how educational choices translate in the working world.

They checked the Butte County government website. Gutierrez found a job for which she was qualified: assistant auditor-controller. With Sylvia watching, she completed the application.

Gutierrez wasn’t job-hunting; she was assistant chief financial officer at Stapleton Spence, a fruit-packing company in her hometown of Gridley, with reasonable expectations of becoming CFO at some point.

“If it hadn’t been for [helping Sylvia],” she told the CN&R, “I never would have looked.”

To her surprise, she got a call. The testing and interview process yielded an offer. So, after two decades in business accounting, Gutierrez moved into government.

“Circumstances place you where you’re supposed to be,” she said. “I think I was placed on the path.”

She’s hoping that path leads upward. Gutierrez is running to succeed Auditor-Controller David Houser, who will retire in January and has endorsed her.

Her opponent is Kathryn Mathes, previously the department’s manager of governmental accounting and currently the city of Chico’s accounting manager. Drawing closer to the June 5 election, demarcation lines have grown sharper, with Mathes emphasizing her CPA credentials (i.e., certified public accountant) and Gutierrez emphasizing her MPA (i.e., master’s in public administration).

The Auditor-Controller’s Office manages payments, prepares property tax bills, tracks county finances and compiles financial reports. The auditor-controller, elected for four years, runs the department.

“It’s really an administrative job that oversees the entire operation,” Gutierrez said. “We are not knee-deep into the transactions.

Kathryn Mathes

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

“It takes more than a CPA to do this job; it takes more than a certificate to do this job. You have to be able to deal with personnel issues; you have to have interpersonal skills; you have to be able to have intergovernmental relations ….”

She knows from experience: “Call it an apprenticeship, if that’s what you like, but [being assistant auditor-controller] is basically doing the job on the day-to-day, which is a heavy responsibility.”

To the degree Gutierrez stresses administration, Mathes stresses accounting. Mathes, who spent four years in the department after a year with then-Assessor Fred Holland, told the CN&R that she feels the auditor-controller and assistant auditor-controller should be the department’s most preeminent accountants.

Like Gutierrez, Mathes started her career in the private sector; her 30 years’ work include controller for DiamondAgra Industries, a local agriculture company with investment from Met Life. She first achieved CPA status in 1986.

“The way I look at this election is the voters are the shareholders, and the county has over half a billion dollars in its own revenue,” she said. “I think [for] any company that had over half a billion dollars in revenue, the shareholders would vote to have a CPA as their accountant—not a bookkeeper.”

Gutierrez joined the office five years removed from a crisis point. The 2005-06 Butte County grand jury excoriated the department as a whole and Houser individually, delineating—among other criticisms—“insufficient separation of duties or internal controls” and “a lack of management skills” in the auditor-controller and his then-assistant.

Running unopposed, Houser got re-elected to his fifth term, commencing January 2007. However, in March of that year, the Board of Supervisors went so far as to consider eliminating the department—one of the grand jury’s 29 recommendations.

Both Gutierrez and Mathes say they’ve read the grand jury report. Gutierrez recognizes certain situations and individuals, but she calls the current staff “the best team we’ve ever had” and said Houser as described in the report “does not sound like the same person” she works for.

“I wasn’t there then, so I don’t know how much was factual and how much was exaggerated,” she added. “But I do know that I did step into a hornet’s nest of personnel stuff, and that was a big challenge to address—and it haunted me up until recently.”

According to Mathes, who left the department in February 2017, “everything in the report seemed true when I was working there.” Her position, manager of governmental accounting, came in response to the grand jury. Even now, she said, “there seems to be an issue with accounting experience there, a lack of accounting knowledge there,” along with turnover.

“The culture doesn’t reward knowledgeable accountants,” she added.

Mathes sees inaccuracy as a byproduct, citing in particular the almost $2 million Chico must repay the state following an audit of county financials that revealed miscalculations. (See “Unexpected debt,” Newslines, Jan. 4.) Gutierrez said the issue stems from the implementation of state law based on a state memo, not a calculation error by the county, and noted that the city concurrently received a windfall of over $5.5 million from the same funding source (i.e., state vehicle fees).

Mathes might as well have been Gutierrez when she said, “I have support from people I’ve worked with and for—and I’m really proud of that. My history is kind of pushing me toward this position.”