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An unusual contested race for county offices

Published: Monday, May 5, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 5, 2014 at 9:49 p.m.

Sonoma County voters are being asked to do something in the June 3 election that they have never done before — decide between two candidates for county auditor-controller-treasurer-tax-collector.

It has been 20 years since voters last saw a contest for county auditor-controller, and 16 years since they last selected between two candidates for treasurer-tax collector.

The two jobs were consolidated in 2006 under Rod Dole, the longtime auditor-controller. After his retirement in 2011, the Board of Supervisors appointed David Sundstrom, the former auditor-controller of Orange County.

Now Sundstrom, a career government official with little local name recognition, faces a challenge from Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky, a better-known but polarizing political figure who enjoys a sizable fundraising advantage.

To date the contest has generated little public buzz, but with the first of two planned debates Wednesday in Cotati, and both candidates sharpening their rhetoric, that may be about to change.

Sundstrom, 61, cites his 35 years in public service, on-the-job experience and professional credentials as reasons voters should trust him to continue managing the county's $1.3 billion budget and $1.5 billion in investments. He calls Wysocky too inexperienced and too political for the position.

“The idea that a significantly unqualified person can get the job is not good,” Sundstrom said.

Wysocky, 57, stresses his track record of vigilant oversight on the City Council, experience as a private CPA and willingness to question the status quo as reasons voters should back his candidacy. He paints Sundstrom as a Republican and life-long bureaucrat with a questionable track record in Orange County.

“He's a 35-year government guy. How independent is he going to be?” said Wysocky, a Democrat and two-term city councilman.

The job of auditor-controller-treasurer-tax-collector has historically attracted few political rivalries, unlike other elected positions, such as supervisor or district attorney.

It involves a range of administrative duties, including collecting and apportioning property taxes, managing how the county, cities, school districts invest their money and auditing county departments and special districts to ensure they are complying with financial standards and safeguards.

“It may be elected, but it is a functionary office,” said Tom Ford, who retired as treasured-tax collector in 2006 and is supporting Sundstrom.

The office has no ability to set policy and has little say over the county budget, he said. Sundstrom's salary in 2013 was $215,935, significantly more than the supervisors, who earn $135,969.

Many counties in the state have opted to just appoint someone to the top financial position. Sonoma County administrators in 2012 proposed just that, but the Board of Supervisors rejected the idea out of concern that it could reduce the independence of the post at a time of significant public scrutiny of the county's finances, particularly its soaring pension obligations.

Sundstrom, who served three terms as the elected auditor-controller in Orange County, stayed out of the debate in 2012. When hired, he pledged that he would run for office in 2014 or apply for appointment. He had long been a vocal supporter of such positions remaining elected, he said.

But now he says he's not so sure. While he strongly believes the person needs to be independent from the Board of Supervisors and the county administrator, running against someone he considers unqualified for the job now makes him wonder whether the position should continue to be elected.

“This person is going to be leaning very heavily on existing staff, some of which, quite frankly, wouldn't put up with it,” Sundstrom said of his rival.

Wysocky thinks the position is elected for a good reason and should stay that way. Otherwise, its independence would be compromised, he said. He views the job largely as one of oversight, and said he is not afraid to stand on principle and push for better explanations from staff.

“What am I known for on the Santa Rosa City Council? When an answer doesn't make sense, I keep at it,” he said.

Sundstrom was raised in Berkeley. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he came to Santa Rosa to get into advertising. While attending the junior college, he realized the ad industry wasn't for him and switched to finance. He received a bachelor's degree in management from Sonoma State University and went on to get a masters in business administration from UC Davis, where he later worked as an auditor.

He was heading up the audit division of the California State University system in the 1990s when he says he was appalled to see reckless investment policies bankrupt Orange County. His wife prodded him to do something about it and he took a job there as director of internal audits in 1996, as the county was emerging from bankruptcy. He was elected in 1998 and won re-election three additional times.

He is a CPA, certified information systems auditor and a certified internal auditor. Since 2009, he has served on the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, a nonprofit organization that establishes financial accounting and reporting standards for state and local governments. He is married, has two sons and lives in Forestville.

He applied for the Sonoma County job in 2011 because, after spending a large part of his career down south, he wanted to return to Northern California and be closer to family, he said.

He was attracted to the position in part because of the chance to work on the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, which loans residents money for solar panel installations and other green improvements to homes and business.

He is passionate about energy efficiency, has solar panels on his home and drives a Chevrolet Volt.

Wysocky was born in Michigan, raised in Burbank and received his bachelor of science degree in business with an emphasis in accounting. He passed the CPA exam right out of college and worked for a couple of accounting firms before founding his own practice in 1987, moving it to Santa Rosa in 1991.

Most of his clients are businesses, the largest of which is currently a Southern California construction company with about $35 million in revenue and about 500 employees. He was an adjunct professor at Sonoma State University in accounting 2005-06.

He is married, has two daughters and lives in a modest home in the Junior College area, where his office is also located. It also has solar panels, and Wysocky uses a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation for years.

He was head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition before being first elected to the City Council in 2008, where he has distinguished himself as a relentless, at times forceful, fiscal watchdog.

His style has garnered him both praise from taxpayers who feel he's looking out for their interests and scorn from those who brand him an egotistical ideologue.

He applied for the job he's now seeking in 2011, but wasn't asked to interview by either the panel of other auditor-controllers or county department heads, Sundstrom noted.

“Clearly he didn't have a lot of juice on a resume to advance,” he said.

Wysocky acknowledges he can't match Sundstrom's resume, but said there is value in having someone from outside government to come at issues from a different angle.

“I think it's healthy to have change and a new pair of eyes come in,” Wysocky said.

Wysocky points out that while in Orange County, Sundstrom was directly involved in two significant financial debacles.

One was Sundstrom's 2012 decision to withhold $73.5 million in property taxes from local schools in a dispute with the state.

The reasons are complicated and involve agreements that Orange County could use a portion of its vehicle license fees to repay the debt stemming from its 1994 bankruptcy. But in 2007, when the county refinanced $1 billion in debt, the mechanism that allowed it to use vehicle license fees to repay bond holders was not reauthorized.

The county continued the tax diversion until 2011, when state budget officials, facing their own financial challenges, put an end to it, creating a $49.5 million hole in the county budget.

Sundstrom and the Board of Supervisors considered the move illegal, got an outside law firms to back the position, and Sundstrom withheld $73.5 million in property taxes from local schools, forcing the state to backfill revenue to make them whole.

State officials sued and won, with an Orange County judge ordering the county to return two years worth of the withheld tax funds, or $149 million.

Wysocky suggested Sundstrom was pressured by the Board of Supervisors to divert the funds because of his shared Republican party affiliation and that the move demonstrated a willingness to bow to political pressure.

“This job is about weighing the advice of your outside consultants and standing up to political pressure, and he failed on both counts,” Wysocky said.

Sundstrom denied he was pressured by the supervisors. He said it was his decision to withhold the property tax and that he stands by it.

“My opponent thinks it's great for somebody to stand up against the big guy. Well, that's exactly what I was doing,” Sundstrom said, of his fight with the state.

The county dropped its appeal and has agreed to repay the state $150 million over five years.

Another financial mess involved millions of dollars in cost overruns and delays the county experienced in the installation of a new property tax software system. A system that was supposed to be $8 million has ballooned to perhaps $50 million, according to published news reports.

The county is now suing the Mumbai, India-based contractor, Tata Consultancy Services. Sundstrom assured supervisors the project was on track shortly before he left, an assessment that was called into question when the new project manager gave supervisors a starkly different assessment.

Sundstrom said he was just one of three department heads sponsoring the new system, and his portion of the work was working fine when he left.

He noted that he did successfully complete a $65 million county financial system upgrade that came in on time and on budget.

Under Sundstrom's guidance, Sonoma County is now in the middle of installing a new $22.4 million accounting and budgeting system to replace a nearly 30-year-old program. The work is expected to be done next year.

Wysocky also has sought to make an issue of Sundstrom's political affiliations. While in Orange County, Sundstrom was a registered Republican, but when he moved to Sonoma County, he changed his registration to non-partisan. Sundstrom explained that he has become “increasingly dissatisfied with that party” over the years, referring to the GOP.

“I wasn't felt to be part of the Republican fold,” he said of his time in Orange County, noting that he has supported Democrats and Republicans over his career.

Wysocky has raised $51,122 for his campaign to date, $4,310 of which was a loan to himself. Significant donors include individuals associated with The Ratto Group, the county's dominant trash hauler, who collectively gave $6,262; business owners including William Friedman of Freidman's Home Improvement ($1,000); developers including Richard Coombs, Bill Gallagher and John Stewart ($500 each), labor groups including the North Bay Labor Council and SEIU($2,756 each); political allies including former Assemblyman Michael Allen ($500) and county Supervisor Susan Gorin ($100), and community members including bicycle advocate Barbara Moulton ($2,756).

Sundstrom has raised $21,748 for his campaign, $15,377 of it in donations or loans to himself. Other donors include Canyon Rock Inc., a Forestville quarry ($500); Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau ($100); Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks ($100); Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association $(150); and Mark Ihde, CEO of Goodwill Industries ($100).

Wednesday's debate takes place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Cotati Veteran's Building. Another forum is scheduled for May 18, from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, 1620 Sonoma Avenue.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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