How to control the auditor-controller?

What do you do when you have a department head who has been blasted for not following procedures, not showing up for work, lacking leadership and not getting along well with other departments? You fire him, right? Well, not if he’s an elected official, you don’t.

This is the issue before the Butte County Board of Supervisors right now, in the form of the Auditor-Controller’s Office, headed by Dave Houser since 1991. He most recently ran in the June 2006 election, unopposed, and his term lasts until 2011.

But a number of issues came out of the 2006 Grand Jury Report that can’t be ignored for the next four years. Things like accountability, leadership and just plain getting the job done. At Tuesday morning’s Board of Supervisors meeting, it was clear that its five members mean to make some waves, whether their decision will be to get rid of the auditor-controller altogether or merely shuffle things around.

“We as a board need to figure out how to make the financial system work for the county,” said Supervisor Curt Josiassen. The Auditor-Controller’s Office is in charge of putting together the final budget, auditing county departments and property tax allocation.

Right now it’s clear it isn’t working, though Houser, in addressing the board, assured its members that the problems can be solved. His elected status is “a very important check and balance,” he argued.

“I have no inkling to eliminate checks and balances,” board Chairwoman Jane Dolan said. “But it’s just not appropriate to have a department head who is not following accepted procedures.”

The accepted procedures she spoke of relate to personnel. When the grand jury asked for a policy manual for the Auditor-Controller’s Office, one could not be found. Two union representatives appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to explain difficulties they have had with the department, with regard to benefits and payroll.

Meetings with the Auditor-Controller’s Office and Human Resources—and a lack of follow-through—have shown a reluctance on the part of the Auditor-Controller’s Office to fix personnel issues in good faith, explained Mitch Crooks, a representative from the Communication Workers of America union, where he’s worked since 1994.

“The problems are escalating,” he said.

It’s also apparent that the department isn’t getting the job done. The grand jury reported that numerous county department representatives testified to a poor working relationship with the Auditor-Controller’s Office and to chronic lateness on its part.

The District Attorney’s Office testified to the grand jury that in fiscal year 2000-01, more than $100,000 worth of mistakes had been made by the Auditor-Controller’s Office. At Tuesday’s meeting, however, District Attorney Mike Ramsey advocated for Houser, calling him “so tight he squeaks when he walks.” He said that was a compliment—an attribute the public would want from its auditor-controller.

But the question remains as to what exactly the board can do in a sticky situation when an elected office is involved. Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh presented four options for moving forward, ranging from doing nothing to shifting responsibilities to the board to eliminating the office altogether and replacing it with a Finance Department. A move that bold, however, would be up to the public—not the board—to decide.

The public has little knowledge of Houser or his position, though. The grand jury described the office of auditor-controller as low-profile and explained that whoever runs for it often enjoys a free ride with no competition. In the same vein, that low-profile office has enjoyed little accountability.

Houser doesn’t report to anyone; no one gives him a performance evaluation. He, like the supervisors, is elected by the public. Unlike the supervisors, however, he enjoys a certain level of anonymity because, among other things, his meetings aren’t televised.

The grand jury, in talking with staff and former staff, found that Houser rarely shows up for work (though he rakes in more than $100,000 a year) and he lacks communication and leadership skills. He is not alone, either—his assistant and another supervisor are listed as being ineffective and/or abrasive. It comes as no big surprise, then, that morale in the Auditor-Controller’s Office is low and turnover is high.

“The biggest issue for me is morale,” said Supervisor Maureen Kirk. “The Golden Rule. It doesn’t seem like people are treated very well in your department.”

Houser assured Kirk and the other board members that he has done much to improve morale since the grand jury report was released in August. He has no documentation, however, to prove the steps he’s taken.

“Sometimes government is made inefficient for the sake of transparency,” Ramsey said in his plea for the board not to rush to any quick decisions regarding the auditor-controller.

“I’m looking at this with concern and angst,” said Vice Chairman Kim Yamaguchi. “We’re talking about eliminating an elected official—but are we looking at the flaws of an individual or of the office?”

Whatever the case, the board has a big decision on its hands—though, at the end of the day, it will probably come before the voters to decide. The plan at hand: Dolan and Yamaguchi will put together a committee that will likely include a couple board members, Houser, a representative from the Treasurer’s Office and the CAO, among others.