Embattled county Auditor-Controller Tom Mahon said Monday he will retire next month two years ahead of schedule, an early exit that prompted old rivals to accuse him of setting up a handoff of his elected position to a longtime aide.
Mahon, 77, the county's top fiscal watchdog since 1993, informed the Board of Supervisors in a letter Monday that he plans to step down Dec. 31 because his 76-year-old wife is seriously ill and he needs to spend more time with her.
He has been virtually absent from the office for about three months, calling in from his Ojai home and sending e-mails to subordinates instead.
"I had hopes I'd be able to come back, but I couldn't," Mahon said in an interview. "Family demands have been such that I can no longer perform the duties of this office. It's time to go, so I'm going."
Picking Mahon's successor falls to county supervisors, most of whom say they will support Mahon's top aide, Christine Cohen, for the $124,322-a-year position. Mahon enthusiastically endorsed Cohen, 43, in his letter of resignation.
"Christine is unsurpassed in her understanding of county government finance, and her knowledge and experience will be invaluable to whoever is selected as the next county [chief administrator]," Mahon wrote. "Christine has my unequivocal support."
But Camarillo accountant Stephen Maulhardt, who predicted during his 1998 campaign against Mahon that the aging incumbent would resign at midterm, said supervisors should not quickly appoint Cohen, but instead consider all qualified candidates or call a special election.
"I would call this cronyism," said Maulhardt, 53, who lost to Mahon 55% to 44% two years ago. He said he called two supervisors Monday to ask how to apply for the vacancy.
"These jobs have been handed down like this for generations," said Maulhardt, a certified public accountant and operator of a chain of medical clinics. "They just play this game of appointing somebody at midterm, so their replacement can run as an incumbent. And, God, I know the power of incumbency."
Maulhardt noted that neither Mahon nor Cohen is a certified public accountant.
County Tax Collector Hal Pittman, who worked in the auditor's office in the 1980s, said he also thinks the supervisors should not rush to appoint Cohen. Interim county Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford recently moved to change the auditor-controller's position, with the CAO reclaiming some of the budget and bonding functions now performed by the auditor-controller, Pittman noted.
"So that would leave the office with a basic auditor's function," Pittman said. "And that's not Christine's long suit. She's not a certified public accountant."
Pittman said he suspects that Mahon timed his resignation not only because of his wife's illness but because he wanted a hand in appointing his successor.
"I think it's probably both," Pittman said. "His wife is very sick, but Tom will be 78 years old in February, and he's looking to his successor. He must have had this in mind to a certain extent all along."
Mahon, however, said he intended to serve his full four-year term until his wife's illness forced a change of plans. And he said Cohen--his office's most experienced manager besides himself--is qualified to oversee county audits.
"Christine has handled just about every job in this office and done them extremely well," he said. "She is the one who brought in the new accounting system that we have. She's been supervising our auditing activity for the last year, so every audit that goes through is reviewed by her."
Cohen holds a master's degree in finance and investments from George Washington University and a bachelor's degree in business administration from Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C. She has worked in the auditor's office for 21 years, serving as Mahon's top assistant since 1994 and as a supervisor since 1983.
Several county officials said she has essentially run the auditor's office for months, and they are impressed with her intelligence and skill.
Hufford said Cohen can ably fill Mahon's shoes.
"Christine is quite obviously a competent, qualified and able person," he said. "I respect her. I think she's got real ability."
Supervisor John Flynn said Cohen understands complicated financial issues better than anyone at county meetings.
"She's a very accomplished person," he said.
Supervisor Kathy Long said Cohen's knowledge of the office and of county government's history is a big asset that would allow the county to move ahead without a hitch as Mahon departs.
"Christine is very bright, and she really works at gathering new information," Long said.
Supervisor Frank Schillo said he talked with Cohen last week after Mahon's resignation became inevitable.
"My feeling was that she would work with us and still be independent," Schillo said. "My concern is that I don't want that department to go without a head for any period of time. I don't see any need for a prolonged process or a special election when we've got an election coming up in 15 months."