Orange County is looking to replace its top fiscal watchdog Eric Woolery, who died suddenly in August, with a former longtime employee at the agency he ran.
Frank Davies, who worked at the Auditor-Controller’s Office for more than three decades before he retired in January 2018, is up for appointment next Tuesday by county supervisors.
“I just want to thank the Board [of Supervisors] for this opportunity and look forward to working with essentially my old colleagues,” Davies said in an interview Monday.
“I hope to be like an accountant’s auditor-controller. Similar to a player’s coach…I love helping people and helping them succeed, which helps allow the office to succeed,” he added.
The auditor-controller’s office has about 390 employees, and is tasked with making sure billions of taxpayer dollars are properly accounted for and sent to dozens of school districts, community college districts, county agencies, and others.
Its staff serve as the county’s main accountants, ensuring county payments are properly processed and flagging potential fraud and misallocation of funds.
Woolery’s successor would serve out the rest of his term, running more than three years until January 2023.
One supervisor said he doesn’t plan to vote for Davies’ appointment because he doesn’t plan to serve the full term.
“It is nothing personal with him, but it’s my understanding that he does not intend to serve out the entire balance of the term – meaning that we’ll just be closer to an election in a period of time and have to face this issue again,” Supervisor Don Wagner told Voice of OC Monday.
“So no disrespect at all to Mr. Davies. I think he’s got an outstanding reputation. But I believe under these circumstances that is not the way we should be going,” Wagner added.
Davies says he’s open to either serving the whole term or leaving office sooner.
“I left it open. I wanted to be upfront with everyone and say that I’m open to serving out his term, but I also wanted to put out there that if things are to a point I think that would be good going forward for the office, that I could stop before the end of [Woolery’s] term,” Davis said.
“So that’s why I just wanted to put it out there that I wanted to be forward with that.”
Asked if there’s a particular timeframe he’s looking at for leaving office, Davies said, “I’m open…Nothing definite with regards to that.”
The head of the Orange County Taxpayers Association is raising concerns that this could “spike” Davies’ county pension by bumping up the salary used to calculate his pension.
“Bringing back a former employee and spiking their pension is truly not an action of a conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors,” said Carolyn Cavecche, the association’s president and CEO.
County officials said Davies has discussed serving one or two years in the position, at which point supervisors would choose a successor closer to the 2022 election.
Asked via text if there’s an arrangement where Davies would serve for one year and it’d spike his pension, Wagner wrote back, “Not with my vote!”
Other supervisors didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment, and Davies didn’t return a follow-up email requesting comment.
County supervisors at one point explored keeping on the acting auditor-controller, Salvador Lopez, for the rest of Woolery’s term, but the momentum later moved in another direction, according to people close to the discussions.
Wagner said he wants to open up the process by inviting people to apply, which hasn’t been done thus far.
“I would like to do an application process and do a serious search” to find someone the entire Board of Supervisors can trust, Wagner said, adding he wants someone who “is cut in the mold of Eric Woolery, who I thought was doing an outstanding job.”
Davies said he worked his way up during his over 33 years at the Auditor-Controller’s Office, starting out as a staff accountant in 1984 and ultimately rising to senior management as chief of the property tax division.
He ran against Woolery for auditor-controller in 2014, and lost a court case challenging his ballot title of “Deputy Auditor-Controller,” according to a blog post at the time by now-District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
As a result of losing the case, Davies had to use “Property Tax Director” as his ballot designation.
Since his retirement, Davies has been finance director for the city of Villa Park under its city manager, Steve Franks, who was a county supervisor’s senior aide and director of the county’s Community Resources department.
Woolery, who first took office in early 2015, had several high profile clashes with the county Board of Supervisors over his questioning of their taxpayer-funded mailers promoting supervisors during their re-elections, management abuse of a discount program at a county-owned hotel in Dana Point, and former Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s retroactive pension payout.
Things took a bad turn for Woolery last year. In January 2018, the county’s former director of internal audit filed a lawsuit alleging Woolery misused taxpayer money by having a government employee drive his young children to and from school and other activities during work hours and babysit them at the office.
And in June 2018, county supervisors moved to take control of many of Woolery’s powers, including transferring the county’s internal auditors who are watchdogs against fraud and waste. The supervisors also moved forward with efforts to take over 287 accounting and financial control staff positions from Woolery’s office, and cut $1 million from Woolery’s budget.
Months later, Woolery moved with his family to a home they bought in Kansas, where he died suddenly at the home on Aug. 7. An official cause of death has not yet been released.
Under state law, county supervisors decide who fills vacancies for county sheriff, DA, auditor-controller, clerk-recorder and treasurer-tax collector. It takes three of the five supervisors to make the appointment.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.