The last time El Dorado County’s auditor-controller, Joe Harn, had an election opponent was in 1994. And over two decades and five terms in office, he wove a legacy as one of the most powerful political figures in the county.
Now he is facing his first election challenge in 20 years and the outcome may well depend on which narrative of Joe Harn voters choose to embrace.
In Harn’s self-appraisal, he has used his position as chief financial officer of the county of 1,800 employees and a nearly $500 million budget to serve as a relentless defender of the taxpayer. Harn takes credit for rescuing the county from $20 million in bond debt and aggressively attacking “frivolous spending” to move El Dorado County from a negative cash balance to a $54 million surplus.
But to Harn’s opponent, accountant and winery owner Mike Owen, the auditor-controller has become a polarizing figure who represents political and management dysfunction in El Dorado County. He portrays Harn as an overpaid public official whose autocratic style, abrasive personality and upbraiding of county employees has created a toxic work environment.
Owen says Harn has been in office too long and is a bully.
“I think he is very command-and-control driven,” said Owen, a former chief financial officer for El Dorado County’s health services agency. “If you get along with him, you can plan on having a fruitful career. If there is any reason he doesn’t like you personally or professionally or you cross him, you are going to have an extremely difficult time.”
The county’s third-highest paid elected official behind the sheriff and district attorney, Harn earned $196,366 in 2012. If he is elected to a sixth term, he will make much less – $148,699 – as a result of a Board of Supervisors vote this year to eliminate pay boosts given to seven county elected officials for longevity and professional certificates such as Harn’s certified public accountant’s license.
His bid for another term at lower pay is caught in the cross-currents of a particularly difficult time for El Dorado County politics.
Supporters of embattled county Supervisor Ray Nutting blame Harn for his role in alerting the district attorney to paperwork discrepancies for state-funded brush-clearing work on Nutting’s 340-acre ranch in Somerset. Nutting was recently acquitted of three felony counts for failing to properly declare state grant income he received for the work, but was convicted of six misdemeanors for improperly getting loans for bail from two county employees and a contractor doing business with the county.
Harn, who accused Nutting of submitting a “bogus” invoice to the state, now contends the election challenge he is facing is all part of “orchestrated political theater” carried out in retaliation over the Nutting case.
The drama surrounding an office, seldom noticed at election time, is also shining a light on workplace issues in El Dorado government.
On May 13, supervisors voted to spend $250,000 to bring in outside trainers to improve the county’s working environment and counsel managers and department heads on respect for employees. They also will appoint a “special master” to investigate complaints of workplace abuse or bullying.
The actions, including management audits ordered for the auditor-controller and human resource offices, were taken after an independent “climate assessment” survey of more than 1,200 county employees reported low morale and a perceived culture of harassment, favoritism or retaliation.
Recently, in a searing address to the board, Mike Applegarth, a 71/2-year county employee and a former legislative staffer, pinned much of the blame on Harn. He depicted the auditor-controller as symbolizing a county management style in which department heads are berated and employees work in fear – particularly if they crossed Harn or failed to perform to his satisfaction.
“This organization is craving for someone to stand up to the auditor-controller,” said Applegarth, principal analyst for the county chief administrative office. “I’ve been personally yelled at on several occasions. I’ll never forget the day that he (Harn) called me, screaming that he was the ‘goddamn auditor’ before he hung up on me.”
Applegarth went on to say that he had seen county department heads “literally crying over how he (Harn) treated them,” blaming the auditor-controller for causing “workplace stress, reduced productivity and grinding inefficiency.”
Harn said he hasn’t had a single employee grievance filed against him during his entire tenure with the county. He added, “And I have never said I am the goddamn county auditor. My mother is 89 years old. She thinks I would go to hell for that. I’m just telling you I don’t use that phrase.”
Harn pointed to survey results indicating his office had one of the highest employee satisfaction rates (92 percent) among county agencies in arguing that he is being falsely portrayed as abusive for political reasons.
Terri Daly, the county’s chief administrative officer, publicly thanked Applegarth “for his courage” in speaking out against Harn, and said, “I will personally protect anyone who comes forward from retaliation.” But in a visit with the editorial bBoard of The Sacramento Bee, she said it is wrong to pin the county’s workplace problems on any single supervisor or elected official.
“I noticed right when I got here that the whole culture is a whack-a-mole culture,” said Daly who was hired from Amador County in July 2010. “I think there were certain people thriving in this bullying culture. But one person didn’t create it.”
Owen, Harn’s election challenger, said Harn “encouraged me to fire most of my staff” after Owen became chief officer of the county’s health services agency, which was later consolidated with another department. Harn said Owen exaggerated the exchange. He said he merely told Owen “he should train his staff and establish performance standards.”
“I don’t go around saying people should be terminated,” Harn said.
Owen, whose campaign signs read, “Finally a Choice,” said Harn has simply served long enough. He promises to implement a new management style if elected that will emphasizes “coaching and mentoring” and not employees “cowering in fear.”
Harn, whose campaign signs read “Protecting Your Tax Dollars,” said any hurt feelings he may be responsible for at the county are the result of hounding agencies and public employees to “forcefully and aggressively protect the interests of the taxpayer.”
“I challenge everybody who wastes or abuses the taxpayers’ money,” Harn said. “And not everybody likes that.”
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.