Observing a series of controversies unfold in the Merced County treasurer-tax collector’s office is what inspired Richard St. Marie to throw his name into the hat.
“In the last several years, watching what’s been going on in this particular department was very upsetting and frustrating for me,” he said. “I see a severe lack of management and direction in this department. The public deserves to have better.”
St. Marie is challenging incumbent Karen Adams, who has been unopposed since her election in 2002.
The 48-year-old is not a politician, but he has spent the past 30 years working in various local government roles. St. Marie is the director of administrative services at the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, overseeing a $46 million annual budget.
St. Marie has worked for the Sheriff’s Department for a combined 20 years. Other career accomplishments include eight years as chief of security for Fresno County’s Department of General Services and a stint on the Dos Palos City Council for two years.
St. Marie said his leadership experience puts him in a position to rebuild what he views as a broken department.
“The first thing I’m going to do is start looking for efficiencies and how we can do better and make the department whole again,” St. Marie said. “I think people need to know they have somebody in there that they can trust. It’s going to take a while, but I want to restore the honesty and integrity.”
St. Marie dismisses claims from his critics that he doesn’t have the accounting or investing background to be the county’s cash manager, handling a portfolio worth up to $700 million. As a business administration major, St. Marie said, he’s taken accounting courses and has experience investing his own money.
St. Marie also said he will lean on the support of investment brokers provided by the California State Association of Counties. “There are a lot of people that don’t have that experience until they’re elected,” he said. “You have experts that you draw upon on those things.”
He said his background in business gives him the ability to deal with human resources and personnel issues because “it’s not all just about crunching numbers.”
After speaking with nearly a dozen of Adams’ employees, St. Marie said they have consistently claimed harassment by their leader and advocated for a change. St. Marie was unanimously endorsed by the Merced County Public Employees Union Local 1, which represents 308 clerical employees.
The union represents the majority of workers in the Revenue & Reimbursement division, which is managed by Adams.
St. Marie was named and then dropped in a civil lawsuit by a former Fresno County manager who claimed a “biased” internal investigation – completed by St. Marie – two years ago led to his termination.
St. Marie told the Merced Sun-Star he was named in the lawsuit because the employee became disgruntled after losing his job. “I was pulled into it because the report I had submitted wasn’t favorable to this employee, and he lost his job as a result of it,” St. Marie said.
If elected, St. Marie said, he will ensure all taxpayers are treated equally and that tax collection methods are applied consistently.
“In all the jobs I’ve had, it’s been all about fairness and treating people equally,” he said. “I believe you should do what you can (to help taxpayers) within the law; however, you also have to look at the public perception. If you’re going to do it for one, you’re going to have to do it for everybody.”
St. Marie said he will work with County Executive Officer Jim Brown to resolve staffing issues in the Revenue & Reimbursement division and to capitalize on resources. He advocates building relationships through ongoing meetings with employees.
In February, a Revenue & Reimbursement manager was arrested in a sexual bribery case. Investigators believe Anthony J. Thompson offered to reduce fines and fees owed to the county for at least one woman in exchange for “dates.” No charges have been filed against Thompson, and the case remains under investigation.
However, St. Marie said he will bolster safeguards to ensure taxpayer accounts are not being manipulated and to prevent adjustments. Adams previously told the Sun-Star she was unaware of allegations that Thompson tampered with accounts, but St. Marie said she should have known.
“As a department head, you’re responsible for what your managers are doing,” St. Marie said. “My fear is there are more victims out there, but they are afraid to come forward in fear that they’ll have this huge debt to pay, and that’s unfortunate.”
St. Marie said he’s the superior candidate because of his background as a trusted county employee.
“I’ve prepared myself for this position for years by getting the education, training and experience,” he said. “I don’t have the baggage that she (Adams) does. We can’t change everything in government, but this is one area we can change and we can make better.”