By Joe Nelson Staff Writer
Created: 07/07/2011 07:58:04 PM PDT

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors should consult with appropriate state agencies to determine if the merger of two county offices last year created a conflict of interest, the Grand Jury has recommended in its annual report.

The Grand Jury, in its report released last week, found “problematic” the Board of Supervisors’ approval of the merger of the Treasurer-Tax Collector and Auditor-Controller/Recorder’s offices in January 2010.

“A ruling from the state Attorney General (can) be requested to determine if the county violated voter rights when it eliminated the elected office of Treasurer-Tax Collector when it became vacant and subsequently combined the duties of that office with another elected office which appears to create a conflict of interest,” the Grand Jury said in its report.

County spokesman David Wert said the Board of Supervisors determined no conflict would be created when it approved the merger.

“And it was pointed out that at least 10 California counties have combined auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collectors, including Sacramento, Fresno and Santa Clara,” Wert said in an email.

He said it was determined that the treasurer-tax collector and the auditor-controller-recorder perform functions that are most commonly found in traditional accounting departments under one umbrella.

As for voter rights, Wert said the county charter includes an ordinance allowing the Board of Supervisors to “consolidate any two or more county offices or separate any offices now or hereafter consolidated.”

Such a merger was accomplished, without challenge, in January 2005 with the Sheriff’s Department and the Coroner’s Office, Wert said.

“In both cases, the board conducted the merger when one of the offices was vacant, thereby not ousting an official who had been elected by the voters,” Wert said.

In its report, the Grand Jury noted that the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) frown upon the combining of auditing and controllership responsibilities, and believe such practices impair the autonomy of the audit process and jeopardize its objectivity.

The Grand Jury also found there was no other county where as many important positions were held concurrently by one person as is the case with the San Bernardino County auditor-controller/treasurer/tax collector and county clerk. It has recommended the auditor’s and controller’s functions be separated.

Before the supervisors approved the 2010 merger, former county Treasurer-Tax Collector Dick Larsen called the proposal “one of the biggest midnight thefts in a long time.”

Larsen, who retired in July 2009 after 37 years with the county, 11 of them as treasurer-tax collector, accused the county of bypassing the electoral process and stripping the public of its voting power.

He said that while Auditor-Controller Larry Walker had plenty of experience as an accountant, he did not possess the investment and securities background to handle the county’s $4billion to $5billion investment pool.

Placing that responsibility on Walker, Larsen said, would tax the office with too many functions.

Reached by telephone Thursday, Larsen declined to comment.

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