Just a few weeks before the June 5 primary election, Humboldt County reversed course and released a letter by county employees criticizing county auditor-controller candidate Karen Paz Dominguez, accusing her of creating a hostile work environment.
County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck told the Times-Standard they originally were not going to release the letter, but decided to release it primarily because it had already been leaked to a local blogger.
He said if the letter had never been leaked, the county would not have released it to the public even if requested by the public.
Paz Dominguez — currently assistant auditor-controller — told the Times-Standard on Friday that it was interesting why the county released the full content of the May 3 letter — including claims such as that she “fostered an atmosphere of hostility, retaliation and bullying” — but redacted the names of the employees who sent the letter.
Paz Dominguez said she’s conflicted because she wants to respond and talk about what’s been happening, but said she’s obligated to follow county policy which forbids her to comment on personnel issues that are in an open investigation.
“I don’t understand why some rights are afforded to some employees, but not to me,” Paz Dominguez said, “and why my information can be so recklessly distributed and I can’t answer or comment on it.”
Paz Dominguez, who is facing off with Department of Health and Human Services accountant Mike Lorig in the race for county auditor-controller’s office, said she wants a fair election. But she said she does not feel that the election is fair at this point, especially considering other comments made by county supervisors and department heads in public and in emails acquired by the Times-Standard that have been critical of her in recent months.
As to why the county redacted the names of the employees who wrote the accusatory letter, Blanck said, “We just didn’t feel it was appropriate to put out the names of the authors because we haven’t had a full chance to deal with their allegations.”
Blanck also cited California Evidence Code 1040 relating to protections afforded to whistleblowers as another reason for not releasing the names.
Davis-based attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan said that while he has great respect for Blanck, he disagrees with Blanck’s reasoning to redact the employees’ names and said he believes a judge would order the county to release the name if the issue went to court.
Boylan said that nowhere in the employees’ letter does it state that the employees are giving the information in confidence or request to remain private or confidential. Boylan said the employees also do not give any indication that they fear retaliation, which he said could allow these employees to be covered by the whistleblower protections.
Furthermore, Boylan said that the employees are not bringing up new information, but rather cite ongoing investigations into claims that Paz Dominguez created a hostile work environment.
Boylan argues the letter is no different than a person who writes their name on a public comment sign-up sheet at a Board of Supervisors meeting, which is a public document.
“The timing is enormously suspicious,” Boylan said. “The timing here is this individual, for better or worse, decided to run for higher office and suddenly in comes this document that can only be characterized as a political hit piece that’s designed to sway public opinion against the candidate.”
Blanck said that the county’s decision to release the letter had nothing to do with the fact that it pertained to Paz Dominguez or the timing being close to the election. He said if the same circumstances occurred next year for a different employee, the county would make the same decision to release the document.
Other reasons Blanck cited for releasing the letter were that several media outlets, including this newspaper, had requested it and because the employees had written the letter to the Board of Supervisors as both “citizens and employees.”
Blanck said the situation is similar to when employees of the Public Defender’s Office wrote a letter to the board voicing criticism of now former Public Defender David Marcus’ qualifications and leadership abilities.
Paz Dominguez said she questions why the county allowed the release the names of those employees, but not the names of those in the auditor-controller’s office.
‘No Show Joe’ and the ‘little terror’
Emails obtained by the Times-Standard also show that one county department head and a county supervisor have also questioned Paz Dominguez’s experience and leadership abilities.
Hired by the office about 11 months ago, Paz Dominguez has openly voiced criticism about the board not providing more funding to the department to hire more staff, which she said in a November board meeting could lend to the judgment “that transparency and accountability for public funds is not a top priority.”
Since then the Auditor-Controller’s Office has gone through a shake-up in recent months with now former Auditor-Controller Joseph Mellett abruptly resigning in April following employee and board member criticism about his work performance.
The Board of Supervisors replaced Mellett with longtime county employee Cheryl Dillingham in April.
All county supervisors except for 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson have endorsed Lorig over Paz Dominguez for the auditor-controller job.
In an April 5 email from county Treasurer-Tax Collector John Bartholomew to 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn with the subject line “KPD,” Bartholomew commended Bohn’s recommendation to appoint Dillingham. Bartholomew then goes on to provide several reasons why Bohn should speak to Paz Dominguez, whom Bartholomew refers to as “the little terror in the AC Department.”
“You being frank with KPD about how she treats staff and other employees will allow you to vent frustration and maybe get her to change her ways,” Bartholomew wrote.
Bartholomew also criticized Lorig, though the county redacts one of the sentences following that statement.
Bohn forwarded Bartholomew’s email to county Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen more than an hour later with a short message: “WTF”.
In a email sent to Bohn later that day, Bartholomew said Paz Dominguez “rose to the top because she is smart, very motivated and hard working.”
“Everyone needs to know their limitations and skillsets to be successful, and KPD isn’t there yet but in time I believe she could be very effective and successful as county AC,” Bartholomew wrote. “IF she can learn from those around her. If not, then we’ve got more problems on the horizon; but we’ve got to give her a chance, and call her out for her screw-ups but in a constructive versus a destructive fashion.”
In one of his responses, Bohn wrote that if Paz Dominguez is elected, her staff will be “gone.”
Bohn said that “bridges have been burned and she has revealed her true identity to them this late in the game after what she has done to those that haven’t left I believe is unfixable, but never say never I hope I am wrong.”
“My fear is that once elected she answers to no one but the electorate and her guidance so far is No Show Joe,” Bohn wrote, referring to Mellett and claims by his staff to the Lost Coast Outpost earlier this year that Mellett regularly left work early or showed up late.
Reached Friday, Bohn said the context of his comment was that Paz Dominguez already has had employees make complaints against her and that some employees have left the office altogether. Bohn said should Paz Dominguez be elected, the board would have no recourse to address any future issues that may arise.
“Once she’s elected she belongs to the electorate. Is that what we want?” Bohn said. “It’s a pretty tough gamble that once she’s elected everything will work out.”
Reached Friday, Bartholomew said he wrote the emails to Bohn to encourage him to meet with Paz Dominguez, stating Bohn had told him the previous day that he had no interest in doing so. Bartholomew said that in his email he expressed several viewpoints made by others, but not necessarily his own.
“Power of authority does not belong to me, it belongs to the County and to my position as Treasurer-Tax Collector; therefore I always try to act in the best interests of the county … which I thought aligned with encouraging Rex to gain a better understanding of Karen,” Bartholomew wrote to the Times-Standard on Friday.
Bartholomew said he does not endorse either candidate in the race and “never will.”
Paz Dominguez said she has spoken with Bartholomew since the emails were made public and said that she and the treasurer work very well together.
In light of what has happened over the past few months, Paz Dominguez said that she is trying very hard to refrain from commenting further.
“But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to just say everything I was thinking,” she said.
She said that she and Dillingham have been working very well together and are trying to look past all of the “distractions” that are going on around.
“I hope the voters make an informed decision based on how my opponent and I have presented ourselves as candidates and not what other people are saying about us,” Paz Dominguez said.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.