The Board of Supervisors skipped both an election and a public appointment process to fill the upcoming controller vacancy, opting yesterday instead to immediately name the office’s second in command and begin researching the possibility of no longer making it an elected position.
The board voted 3-2 to appoint Assistant Controller Bob Adler, a suggestion made by Supervisor Don Horsley who last week favored an election. Horsley called Adler "eminently qualified,” saying he knew his work and work ethic from 20 years of working together in the county. Board President Adrienne Tissier and Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson also favored Adler’s appointment.
Both supervisor Carole Groom and Dave Pine also commended Adler but said an outright naming rather than a transparent vetting of candidates was the wrong move.
"It is absolutely critical that a candidate who would like to fill this position through an appointment go through some sort of public process,” Pine said.
Adler follows current Controller Tom Huening who submitted his irrevocable resignation last month effective March 30. Huening, 70, has been controller since 1998 and is leaving to work full time on his second book. Adler, 57, is a Redwood City resident who joined the county in 1995 and was named assistant controller in 1998.
The controller, essentially the county’s top fiscal officer, is an elected position but the county charter allows the board to fill vacancies through either an election or appointment. The board previously delayed a decision until Jacobs Gibson returned from medical leave to participate in a vote. Taken together, the board would have been unable to place the controller election on the June primary ballot so the only options other than appointment by the end of April was a pricey special election or waiting until November.
A controller election in the fall would cost approximately $40,000.
Lisa Conrad, speaking on behalf of the county’s League of Women Voters chapters, urged the board to choose an appointment because "to call a special election would be of an incredible expense to the county and voter turnout is likely to be low.”
Conrad said the controller position is particularly critical in the wake of the state disbanding the redevelopment agencies, a point the board revisited in choosing to pick Adler outright.
Jacobs Gibson worried that if the board held a public interview and consideration process but opted for an internal candidate like Adler anyway, the public would accuse the board of being disingenuous.
Pine agreed there was that danger but between the "two evils” of public perception and not having a completely open process he preferred the latter.
"This is a situation where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Pine said.
But Tissier suggested the current economic times in particular calls for someone with institutional knowledge and experience now.
By law, the controller must meet at least one of several criteria: be a certified public accountant; hold a baccalaureate degree in accounting or its equivalent and not less than three years experience within the last five years in a senior management position in a public agency, private firm or nonprofit organization; be a designated professional auditor with at least 16 college semester units in accounting, auditing or finance; or have at least three years continuous service as a county auditor, chief deputy county auditor or chief assistant county auditor.
Adler will finish out Huening’s term and be eligible for re-election — that is, if the position is still elected.
Horsley and Groom agreed to serve on a subcommittee with the county counsel to look at asking voters to change the county charter so that the controller position is always appointed rather than elected. Horsley also suggested having safeguards in place like a finite term to prevent the position from losing its independence.
A charter review committee previously considered such a recommendation but ultimately refrained from asking the Board of Supervisors to move the idea before voters.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.