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Orange County has lost one of the good ones

Eric Woolery, Orange County’s elected Auditor-Controller unexpectedly passed away just over a week ago. In an era when people run for public office for all the wrong reasons Eric stood out. He believed in public service, that good people needed to step up and serve or we would all be in trouble. Being elected our Auditor-Controller was Eric’s dream job. He understood that he was serving the taxpayers and that it wasn’t the other way around, and he was fearless in bringing that concept to the Auditor-Controller’s office. He ran straight into the politically charged wall of the County of Orange.

In June 2014, Eric was first elected Orange County Auditor-Controller with over 57% of the vote. Once in office Eric sought out public input and brought forward new policies and procedures to an office that desperately needed updating.

He gave out Taxpayer Watchdog Awards and began holding seminars to educate the public on fraud and waste in government, and he updated the yearly Orange County Citizens’ Report, making it a document that actually had meaning for taxpayers. OCTax was honored to have worked with his office on this report and Eric presented it at our annual meeting each year when it was released. Eric understood that he was a countywide elected official and needed to report to and be responsible to all of the voters and taxpayers of Orange County and he ran his office with that in mind.

In 2014, Eric Woolery requested, as his predecessor had, that the Internal Audit Department be returned to the Auditor-Controller’s oversight. The Orange County Board of Supervisors had taken over control of Internal Audit after the 1994 bankruptcy. Of the 58 counties in California, Orange County is the only one that does not have a consolidated Internal Audit/Auditor Controller Department.

When the Board of Supervisors refused, Tom Daly introduced Assembly Bill 783 that would require that all California counties consolidate the Internal Auditor with the Auditor Controller. Before the bill passed, the Board of Supervisors agreed to return the Internal Audit function to the elected Auditor Controller and Daly agreed to withdraw the bill.

Everything appeared to be running smoothly until tensions started to build between Eric and a majority of the Board of Supervisors when Eric questioned specific expenditures being made by the county. Soon after Eric was re-elected in 2018, in an overwhelming victory with 74% of the vote, the Board of Supervisors voted to again remove the Internal Audit function and bring it back under their control, decreased the Auditor Controller’s budget by over $1 million essentially stopping the improvements being made to the department, and removed the Auditor-Controller as a voting member of the county’s Audit Oversight Committee.

The Orange County Grand Jury stepped in and recently released a report entitled, “If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it.” They recommended that the Board of Supervisors reevaluate their decision to remove over $1 million from the Auditor-Controller budget and allow the office to complete needed operational improvements. The report goes into great detail into the background and history of the office of the Auditor Controller and paints Eric Woolery in a very positive light. The Board of Supervisors is now required to respond to the report, and I will admit that I have become a cynic.

I wonder what their response will be. I tell myself it won’t be good. However, in my last conversation with Eric we talked about the report, and how he believed that a majority of county supervisors wanted what was best for the taxpayers and would do the right thing. So I am going to remember an honorable man who cherished his service to Orange County, and believe the same.

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

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