Local News

Tuesday, Oct 16 2012 11:15 PM

Kern County's controversial auditor-controller to retire

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County Auditor-Controller Ann Barnett, known for both beefing up the auditing of county departments and controversially ending civil marriages at her office, is retiring at the end of the year.

Barnett wrote in an email to The Californian Tuesday that she has yet to make the decision official with a formal letter to the Kern County Board of Supervisors. She did not respond to a subsequent email asking for her reflections on her years in office nor to phone messages left for her Monday and earlier Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors will have to appoint someone to fill the remaining two years of Barnett's four-year elected term.

Barnett was first elected auditor-controller in 2006. She's been known as a tough, independent official unafraid to stand her ground on issues.

In recent years, Barnett and her office stepped up the pace of county department audits, discovering a number of problems including personal use of Kern County Fire Department equipment and former Library Director Diane Duquette's use of a county vehicle and gas card to attend interviews for new jobs across the state.

Both former Fire Chief Nick Dunn and Duquette retired from county service in the wake of investigations by Barnett's office.

She also pursued a number of technological improvements to the county's core financial systems, including cost accounting and payroll programs that are expected to greatly increase county efficiencies.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Supervisor Jon McQuiston credited Barnett with taking the Board of Supervisors' commitment to be accountable for the proper use of taxpayer dollars seriously, though voters were her bosses. He said the effort has rooted out conflicts of interest and helped highlight ways county systems can work better.

McQuiston said Barnett led her department to build critical computer software from scratch that are expected to improve efficiencies and give supervisors better financial data to build policy around.

"We live in a data-rich world. The technology is there," McQuiston said. Barnett's systems mine that financial data for information about spending by departments, giving very specific information about the cost to provide various public services.

Another program streamlines county personnel systems.

Because they were built from scratch, the systems mesh extremely well with county operations.

"Systems that we buy for various applications don't live up to our expectation," McQuiston said.

Elections Division Chief Karen Rhea said that work happened in her office, which the auditor-controller oversees, as well.

"Working under Ann in the elections office has been one of the best experiences of my career," Rhea wrote in an email. "She can be tough, and we haven't always agreed but she has always heard me out before making a decision. What has been most exciting is her vision, support and allocation of staff resources to allow us to automate many of our processes."

Efforts Barnett supported have helped track election materials more closely, reduced the amount of temporary staffing required to run an election by 75 percent and the amount of staff overtime by 50 percent, Rhea wrote.

"Staff are excited and embracing the idea of change and finding new and better ways to work. She did this. I just wish she were still going to be around to see and enjoy it," Rhea said.

CIVIL MARRIAGES

But Barnett, a devout Christian, is also remembered for ending the performance of civil marriage ceremonies at the county clerk's office when it became clear that a court ruling would allow gay and lesbian couples to make use of the service.

That ruling came in 2008, when the California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22, which had outlawed same-sex marriages. Barnett's office was required by law to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But actually performing the ceremonies was not mandatory and Barnett cancelled them for both same-sex and heterosexual couples, saying the county lost money on each ceremony.

Her approach drew national attention. Media from across the United States descended on Kern County to view the first gay marriages, performed outside the county headquarters, on June 17, 2008.

Whitney Weddell, leader of the Bakersfield Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning group -- who was married to her wife on that day in 2008 -- said it is sad that Barnett's perceived feelings about gays and lesbians is what she is now known for.

"She dropped a really big ball. Once. But once was enough," Weddell said.

The sad part of the whole affair, she said, is that Barnett's decision has done more harm to low-income heterogeneal couples than to same-sex couples.

Just months after the first June weddings in California, California voters passed Proposition 8 -- which ruled that marriage was only between a man and a woman in the state.

"Gay people haven't been getting married there for the last four years," Weddell said. But, "She completely cut low-income (straight) people out of the loop and it was a shame that she did that."

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