Our View: St. Marie better choice for treasurer tax collector

May 30, 2014 

Richard St. Marie

Richard St. Marie has worked in the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for 20 years.

BEA AHBECK CASSON — Merced Sun-Star Buy Photo

Merced County Treasurer and Tax Collector Karen Adams has a knack for numbers, especially those representing dollars. She watches them, understands them and gets the most out of them. Unfortunately, she apparently has no such knack for managing people or even understanding how most people will react to seriously flawed behavior and an unacceptably large number of problems bedeviling her office.

Richard St. Marie cannot approach the same level of expertise in handling money, but he has dealt professionally and capably with staff while at the Sheriff’s Department. He has a reputation for honesty, and his grasp of the treasurer’s duties and responsibilities is substantial enough to provide confidence for voters. That’s why the Sun-Star is endorsing St. Marie for treasurer tax collector.

Managing the county’s $240 million in annual tax receipts, 1,700 accounts and roughly $1.4 billion in investments shouldn’t really be a high-profile job. Unfortunately, Adams has made the job she first won in 2002 one of the most visible in the county. That is not a positive.

• In 2011 her staff complained of sexual harassment, nepotism and retaliation. Those complaints were “validated” by an independent investigator. That led to a unanimous censure from the Board of Supervisors. Adams chalked it up to a bad case of “potty mouth,” from which she says she has recovered. It was an expensive cure, costing the county a $30,000 settlement.

• Employees in the country registrar’s office were reassigned, the most drastic action the supervisors could take against an elected official.

• In August, employees in the Revenue and Reimbursement division – which Adams acquired in 2008 over her objections – brought other charges, including that she stopped them from seizing bank accounts from those who are delinquent in paying taxes. Adams says the move was necessary because the seizures were improper, but she hasn’t yet re-established a better process or reinstated one of the most important tools for collecting taxes from people who refuse to pay.

• In 2013, Adams met with Supervisor John Pedrozo and one of his constituents to work out delinquent-tax deals. Meeting with taxpayers is absolutely part of the job, but having a supervisor sit in reeks of politics – especially when the supervisor accepts a large campaign contribution the same day. Adams should have told Pedrozo to get lost.

Adams has done much good as treasurer. She is respected for her understanding of investments, and has worked to allow treasurers statewide to broaden investment opportunities. She pushed for rules that have been adopted by all but 10 counties – Merced being a notable exception – that would require treasurers to have one of five core abilities. Her investments returned nearly $5 million to the county last year, by her own estimate, and she avoided substantial losses during the 2008 meltdown. Like we said, she’s good with numbers.

Usually, the Sun-Star prefers to endorse incumbents when they show such competence. But Adams’ censure, the accusations of harassment and intimidation and appearance of favoritism make that impossible. Most troubling, Adams has trouble seeing the problem. When asked how the office environment should change, she answered, “I haven’t spent a lot of time pondering that.” When asked how she could avoid the appearance of favoritism in meeting with taxpayers, she said, “I would maybe approach it a different way, but I’m not sure how.”

Without greater remorse or at least introspection, there is no real expectation for change.

We don’t care that she is a self-professed “potty mouth” – many of us are. It’s that so many of her co-workers feel intimidated, harassed and prevented from doing their jobs.

St. Marie has managed the non-sworn staff for the Sheriff’s Department and a $40 million budget for years. We know that managing budgets is different from managing money. And of the five requirements for treasurer, he fulfills only two – a business admin degree and experience in a government job with financial responsibilities.

His greater expertise is in handling people. He vows to establish clear standards for conduct and performance then help employees meet them through training and mentoring.

“I’ve dealt with literally hundreds of employees” in a 20-year managerial career, said St. Marie. “And most we were able to turn the behavior around; some we were not.”

Beyond that, he must address rules for other officials – including supervisors – in dealing with his office.

“There’s no supervisor, not any one of them, who will walk into my office and get me to bend the rules, violate any laws – it’s just flat not going to happen,” he said. We believe him.

Not even St. Marie is saying Adams broke any laws in dealing with Pedrozo’s constituent. “But it absolutely smells horrible and it looks horrible. The people involved should have been a little more cognizant of what that looks like. Who’s to blame? I don’t know. I would venture to say both of them would probably not do the same thing again. But I can guarantee you I would not.”

The personnel issues in the Treasurer’s office became personal then became public. Because of that, we now need someone skilled in dealing with staff who can make the job once again about the numbers, and not about the treasurer.

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