Mendocino County Supervisors and District Attorney David Eyster are facing a groundswell of opposition this week in what some argue is a deliberate effort to malign elected county Auditor Chamise Cubbison.
Cubbison supporters say they will show up for her expected entry of a not-guilty plea at 9 a.m. next Tuesday in Mendocino County Superior Court. That afternoon at 1 p.m. they will be present before the county Board of Supervisors, who after the fact, has decided to give the auditor an opportunity to address her controversial suspension without pay.
The board’s move is framed as procedural in the published Board agenda, however, rather than any serious review of an action they took without public notice, and has set the stage for a possible legal challenge.
“It is unbelievable what is going on,” said Val Muchowski, a longtime figure in local county politics.
Cubbison’s suspension by county Supervisors, and DA Eyster’s criminal charge against a county auditor he has battled with over his office’s spending, are fueling the biggest county political brouhaha to erupt in a decade or more. It threatens to loom large over upcoming races for the county Board of Supervisors, and a possible bid by Eyster to become a Superior Court judge in next year’s March primary.
The growing public criticism is unsparing.
“The Supervisors took on the role of a constitutional wrecking crew in their rush to judgment on Cubbison,” declared Jim Shields, a veteran North County newsman and manager of the Laytonville County Water District.
Shields in a published statement declared, “The county is on shaky legal ground surrounding this entire, unseemly affair, including the justification provided by the outside attorney.” Morin Jacobs, managing partner of a San Francisco law firm, is the board’s outside legal advisor.
Muchowski, who is a leader of the 100-member-strong Mendocino Women’s Political Coalition, said her group is aghast at the actions taken by the board and the DA.
“We are very upset about this,” said Muchowski, who has been active in county politics since the 1980s.
Carrie Shattuck, a Redwood Valley resident, and candidate for the board in next year’s election, directly chastised board members after their vote to suspend Cubbison.
“I think the board is really jumping the gun. Ms. Cubbison has not even been arraigned yet,” scolded Shattuck when she confronted supervisors in the board room.
Julie Beardsley, a union leader for 850 county workers who retired this past week from the county’s beleaguered Public Health Department, said Saturday that the situations at the county administrative and board level are dismal.
“There is no effective leadership at the top. I don’t mean to sound like such an alarmist, but the dysfunction is not isolated. It is widespread,” said Beardsley.
Beardsley said deputy CEOs in the County Executive Office are young and often not as experienced as traditional department heads yet they are running some key county agencies.
Sara Pierce, the Deputy CEO appointed to serve as acting Auditor after suspending Cubbison, for example, has only about three years of experience in county fiscal matters. “She is totally not qualified,” said Beardsley.
Kathy Wylie, a Mendocino Coast resident who served on three county Grand Juries, said she is fed up with the ‘blame game’ going on at the top levels of county government.
“Quit the blame game. It is costly, unproductive, and a huge waste of taxpayer money,” said
Wylie isn’t happy with DA Eyster’s involvement in the administrative chaos either. “The DA should be referring high profile cases (like Cubbison’s) for outside review when he or his staff are personally involved.”
Board Chairman Glenn McCourty said this past week he could not comment on the mushrooming controversy.
“We have been advised by our counsel not to discuss or comment on any ongoing criminal investigation and criminal matter,” said McCourty in response to questions.
DA Eyster failed to respond to written questions submitted to his office about the Cubbison case, and his role in the broader controversy over the forced consolidation of the county finance offices.
On Oct. 17, however, Eyster publicly read a statement at the Board of Supervisors meeting denying a vendetta against Cubbison and lambasting “a false narrative being circulated by some who have pursued an agenda of misinformation and by others who recirculate this false narrative without having enough information to know better.”
Eyster insisted the criminal investigation was not “instigated by me or anybody else in the DA’s Office” but rather an outside complaint made to the Sheriff’s Office.
Yet a board statement issued later described it as “the District Attorney’s investigation,” and said it was “prompted after the CEO’s office found evidence of misappropriation of funds in September 2022.”
Eyster in his statement to the board refused to discuss who sought the investigation, or whether he viewed his past public battles with the Auditor’s Office – which are documented on video and in meeting transcripts – as a possible conflict of interest in pursuing criminal charges against Cubbison.
“Finally, while some don’t like it, my staff and I will not publicly discuss facts and/or legal theories of this case (or any other case for that matter) outside of court unless and until there is a conviction. If someone looking in from the outside tells you or writes that they have divined what is going on and why, don’t believe it,” said Eyster.
Eyster’s squabbles with the Auditor coincide with efforts by some members of the Board of Supervisors to force the consolidation of the county finance offices. The convergence of these forces some argue resulted ultimately in the arrest and suspension of Cubbison.
Muchowski said when the board seats became filled with all Democrats, she and other longtime local political activists celebrated. “Finally,” recalled Muchowski.
But how Eyster, a Republican, fits into the current board political mix is curious in the minds of Muchowski and other longtime observers of county government.
Eyster claims to be a Reagan Republican but sometimes his personal behavior toward staff, and opponents in county government and in the courts can be unpredictable. Eyster’s abrupt firing in 2016 of his popular chief assistant left courthouse insiders gasping.
Since taking office in 2011, Eyster has battled with three county auditors in a row over office spending, including travel-related expenses, office parties under the guise of ‘training sessions,’ and the use of drug-related asset forfeiture funds for routine office expenses.
Cubbison is the latest auditor to quarrel with Eyster.
Cubbison, a Mendocino County native, was recruited a decade ago by county administrators to work in the Auditor’s Office because of her knowledge of county finances, learned while working as a highly regarded budget analyst for the county’s Department of Transportation.
After Eyster took office, Cubbison earned his ire by questioning his requests for office reimbursements for travel and other expenses.
“He described me as a ‘pain in the ass,” Cubbison recalled. “As auditor on behalf of the public, I am supposed to be a pain in the ass.”
Eyster, in an escalation of their dispute in 2021, appeared before the Board of Supervisors and publicly attacked Cubbison’s qualifications to be appointed interim auditor after Lloyd Weer decided to retire early.
He also publicly supported a board notion to abolish the two elected county positions with oversight of county finances – Auditor and Treasurer – and create a single Department of Finance more closely associated with the county’s executive offices.
The forced consolidation of the two offices, seen as the first step in the board’s disputed plan, was opposed by then Treasurer/Tax Collector Shari Schapmire, senior finance employees including Cubbison, and civic organizations including the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau, like Schapmire and others, worried that the board’s action would create chaos, and reduce the “fiduciary checks and balances for the county.”
Schapmire and other county finance veterans have defended Cubbison.
“In my experience directly interacting with Chamise Cubbison, I found her to be competent, meticulous, and dedicated to her duties,” said Schapmire in a recent interview. “That being said, others found her to be abrupt, direct, and oftentimes difficult.”
Cubbison, despite being under fire from the board and the object of Eyster’s scorn, was elected by county voters in 2022 to lead a combined Auditor/Controller/Treasurer/Tax Collector office. The office has been plagued by an exodus of veteran county employees, staff shortages, a troublesome new software program, and other related issues. Board members have piled on, clamoring for financial reports that either have been delayed or never been done before. They point their fingers at the Auditor’s Office for uncertainty over the county’s true financial status and a few months ago with fanfare asked for a state Controller’s audit amid the turmoil. That audit is still pending.
In the midst of the Board’s scrutiny of Cubbinson, Eyster directed his own investigators to further probe Cubbison’s alleged role in a disputed extra pay deal during the Covid pandemic for former county Payroll Manager Paula June Kennedy.
Eyster after a year of investigation decided to accuse both women of felony misappropriation of public funds.
At issue is an estimated $68,000 in overtime pay for Kennedy, an arrangement that Cubbison said was made between Weer, the retired auditor, and Kennedy before she was in charge of the Auditor’s Office. Cubbison in fact put Kennedy on administration leave, and later dismissed her from her payroll position because the arrangement had not been properly authorized.
Eyster’s criminal complaint suggests Cubbison and Kennedy engaged in a conspiracy but the Auditor’s attorney, Chris Andrian, said there is no evidence suggesting Cubbison personally benefited financially from the pay arrangement.
“The money went for work actually performed. Not one dime went into my client’s pockets,” said Andrian.
Cubbison has said she chose to fight the felony charge the DA filed against her rather than to quietly resign in a misdemeanor deal Eyster offered her before the criminal complaint was even filed on Oct. 13.
“I have done nothing wrong,” said Cubbison.
Cubbison is weathering the storm, buoyed by the growing public support but weighed down by the damage to her reputation.
“It’s a struggle but I know I have no choice but to defend myself, and my integrity as a professional,” she said recently.