In December of 2015, Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley suddenly announced her retirement. She had served as elected Clerk-Recorder since 2002. While publicly she was best known for her advocacy for same-sex marriage, those in the know knew her as someone who marched to her own drummer at best, and one who shunned conventional rules at worst.
A blistering audit report has highlighted just how bad things were run under the former County Clerk, and it is now on the shoulders of newly-appointed Clerk-Recorder Jesse Salinas to clean up the mess. In his meeting with the Vanguard, Mr. Salinas trumpeted his “Corrective Action Plan” which seeks to address the concerns laid out in the audit – 16 in total.
The sloppiness of financial accounting is one thing – a serious matter – however, Mr. Salinas told the Vanguard that when it came to the key duty of counting votes, there seems to have been no problem.
“Although I was not here during that time, I do not believe that was the case,” that the internal problems of the elections office impacted the key duty of accurately counting the votes in Yolo County, he told the Vanguard. “In fact, since my arrival I have been impressed with the tremendous hard work and commitment to accurate counting by everyone involved in the election process.”
If anything, the audit seems to pull some of the punches. One of the key findings: “Numerous service agreements were initiated with outside parties, current and prior county employees, previously elected officials and other entities regarding various election activities that did not follow the county’s contract and procurement policies and/or have the approval of county counsel, or the board.”
The blame falls on Freddie Oakley here, the audit notes. “Based on our review the staff were acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review. Additionally, staff were not provided necessary training and development over county contract policies and procedures, and appears to have been misguided on the interpretation of various Election Codes regarding exemptions over expenditures relating to Election Day events.”
On the other hand, some familiar with the situation explained that Freddie Oakley was simply not a rule follower. There is a difference between doing things outside of the rules and doing things illegally. There is a gray area between the two and that’s where Ms. Oakley “lived.”
Part of the problem here is that someone allowed these practices to occur and, while Ms. Oakley was an elected official, no one at the county level signing the checks seemed to be monitoring the situation or pushing back.
Freddie Oakley set up policies and practices in her office that were not best financial practices.
The audit further found, “Numerous material and supply agreements, including equipment purchases and software, were initiated with various outside vendors that did not always follow county procurement policies or involve the County’s IT department.” Once again the blame falls on Ms. Oakley, with the report stating, “Based on our review the staff was acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review.”
The findings on the use of purchase cards is troubling as well. The audit found, “IT equipment such as hard drives, smart phones, IPads, IPhones, and laptops are freely purchased on the p-card. The office does not require staff to acquire approval or involve the county’s IT department or county procurement before purchasing equipment.”
The audit notes, “There is no tracking tool or inventory performed on the equipment and staff are unable to identify where some of the equipment is located. There are no tracking tools for disposed, loaned or rented equipment.
“The office employs a small number of staff and all but 3 have p-cards. Staff that no longer work in the election office maintains their purchase cards and continues to use them freely to book unauthorized expensive travel for training that is no longer necessary to perform their duties. A review of their p-cards identified airline tickets, hotels, parking, and payment for monthly cell phone services for their county issued cell phones.”
The corrective action here was simple – they canceled purchase card use for all except two individuals in the department.
Again, the audit notes, “Based on our review the staff were acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review. Additionally, staff appears to not have been provided sufficient training and understanding of the appropriate use of the purchase cards. Staff appears to have been misguided on the interpretation of various Election Codes regarding exemptions over expenditures relating to elections.”
However, others noted to the Vanguard that the county, for many of these years, was operating on a very tight budget and that these processes were employed not to cost the county and department money but rather as a way to cut corners in order to save money. The office made a lot of judgments on equipment that were independent of other county departments.
The audit, some maintain, raises a lot of questions about process but they don’t raise a flag about purchases that were actually ill-advised or did not serve the best interests of the county. Essentially, some maintain that all purchases were necessary and well spent.
The department was also hammered for hiring practices and other payroll issues. The audit notes, “Based on interviews with staff, allegations were raised that the appropriate county hiring practices may not have always been followed.”
Poll workers were one cited problem, where the current practice included “entering up to four hundred names without social security number or federal tax ID number into a spreadsheet and processing them through DFS as one-time claims.”
Others told the Vanguard that, while this is probably not the preferred practice, the poll workers are required to fill out about 15 different forms in order to be poll workers and therefore it was believed their process was sufficient even if it did not follow county policies.
There were contracts that were signed that were ill-advised, unnecessary and resulted in no real product of value to the county. Moreover, there were hiring decisions made similarly that were probably ill-advised and contrary to standard accounting policies.
Two troubling situations that the Vanguard was able to confirm came out of some of these conversations. One case was a poll worker and volunteer, a fairly prominent resident with a history of predatory behavior toward young women and girls, being allowed to stay on as a poll worker and volunteer, even after he “harassed” the daughter of a county employee.
Then there was a contract from 2015 with a former election’s officer to do research on outreach to Hispanic youth. The paper was of questionable value to the county. The paper was co-written with an undergraduate from UC Davis. The election official received $10,000 for this paper, while the undergraduate would later be hired at a $20 an hour rate.
Mr. Salinas told the Vanguard he was brought in to clean up this office. He is working to implement the corrective action plan, including reviewing existing policies and the county manual. He believes an update is needed for the county manual.
But, most of all, he is looking at a cultural shift in the office, with weekly reports and benchmarks.
—David M. Greenwald reporting