BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — As Kern County currently handles a $3.5 billion budget, the auditor-controller has a huge responsibility but tracking funds isn't all they do.
Mary Bedard has been Kern County’s auditor-controller clerk and registrar of voters for a decade. She told 23ABC it was time to pass the position to someone else. The position will either go to the second in command or a new choice altogether - someone who was almost not even on the ballot
“That’s what I see as my role as auditor-controller," said Bedard. "I answer to the public, and to the taxpayer and we want to make sure that we are handling the taxpayer’s dollars, in accordance with the law, the budgets that are set by the board.”
Safeguarding the taxpayer’s dollars is what Bedard says has been her charge.
Now, two candidates are vying to take over the role: assistant auditor-controller Aimee Espinosa and local businessman Mark McKenzie. Espinoza has been in her position for almost 3 years and has had 16 years of experience working for the county in government accounting, budgeting, and reporting. McKenzie almost wasn't on the ballot at all.
Initially, Bedard did not think McKenzie met the qualifications for the role, and he took that decision to court. A Kern County superior court judge ruled in favor of McKenzie, allowing him to make it onto the ballot.
According to McKenzie's campaign, he’s had 30 years of experience in accounting and handling budget proposals for major construction projects all over the county. He says he's handled the financial profit and loss responsibility for a multi-billion dollar construction company before running his own construction tech business that he founded.
”I know this county and I understand budgets, bids, and careful use of dollars”
When asked if McKenzie was qualified for the position, Espinoza responded: “I think that Mr. Mckenzie has an impressive resume. He has master’s degrees and multiple certifications, but he is not an accountant and for the number one chief accountant of the county – to not have an accounting degree – to never have worked as an accountant. It’s fine to understand accounting theory but to never have had that experience, I personally feel because of the work that I've seen and had to do, it could be detrimental."
California law states the auditor-controller clerk acts as the chief accounting officer of the county and the chief auditor of the county.
“Once the money comes in from the taxpayers, we allocate it out into all the governmental entities in the county. Not just the county of Kern itself, but to the school districts. So we are actually the auditor and controller to all the governmental entities when it comes to property taxes,” said Bedard.
And of a county of almost a million people and a current budget of $3.5 billion, it’s a lot of ground to cover.
Espinoza says their office is currently short-staffed and that it’s been hard to find county accountants.
“Oftentimes, Mary Bedard and I, we have to get into the weeds: we have to assist our staff or sometimes take on assignments on our own to make sure the work gets done.”
And accounting is not all the auditor-controller is responsible for. In Kern, the elected official is automatically the registrar of voters too. As 23ABC political analyst, Dr. Ivy Cargile points out only four of California's 58 counties combine the roles.
“In recent years, Kern County has grown and it is going to continue growing. In previous years and in previous decades, it made sense to combine the two, whereas I don’t know what people might be feeling now in regards to separating the two positions, because, in the majority of the state’s counties, the positions are separate.”
Both candidates running for the office have their own stances on how to continue safeguarding the election process in the county.
“In the last three years, I’ve become very familiar with the registrar of voter’s duties,” said Espinoza. “If you’ll remember back in 2020, we had an assistant registrar of voters, who ended up leaving the office. I assumed some of those responsibilities.”
According to Kern County, the registrar of voters handles “voter registration, the administration of public elections within the county, and the maintenance of all related and official records.”
As Espinoza points out, the registrar of voters also has to "poll-worker training, reviewing process in place that have been there for many years, looking at our number of registered voters growing and then the changes with COVID.”
McKenzie has stated in his campaign that he has devoted months of time volunteering at the elections office. He adds that he now knows how to deal with complex systems and numbers with his 30 years of experience in the private sector and as a local business owner.
“And I witnessed inefficiencies, mismanagement, and even worse: an opportunity for error. I felt compelled to do something about it.”
Dr. Cargile touches on McKenzie’s criticism that elections are not being run smoothly.
“This election was plagued with a pandemic. It was also plagued by a lack of people wanting to work the election in addition to a large percentage of voter turnout. So we kind of had a perfect storm that face the office during election season. And there’s a chance they could face that same position for the primary.”
There are currently nearly 440,000 registered voters in Kern County according to the Kern County Elections Office, a 20 percent increase in the past decade. If elected Espinoza wants to expand voter education.
“With all allegations across the country, I think it’s really important that voters have confidence, that when they drop their ballot off, it is being counted. That they have confidence, that the people who are doing that work, are doing it fairly and correctly.”
At past Kern Board of Supervisors meetings, there has been discussion about separating the registrar of voters and auditor-controller position. Espinoza says she's indifferent on the matter. Bedard says it’s ultimately up to the board of supervisors if those two positions should be separated.
Espinoza shares that if elected she wants to do additional county-wide audits for high-risk areas, like cash. Typically, departments get audited every two years. She also wants to make financial reports online easier to navigate so the public can feel more confident in the department’s transparency.
23ABC reached out to McKenzie for an interview, but he said he was not available by newscast time. His campaign does say he’ll provide fiscal responsibility, transparency, and accountability.