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Potential Heir as County Auditor Says She Can Handle Scrutiny

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | PROFILE CHRISTINE COHEN

November 22, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before county Auditor Tom Mahon got around to handing in his resignation letter Monday, the attention was on his assistant, Christine Cohen.

Although the Board of Supervisors have yet to affirm Cohen's appointment to fill her boss' slot until his term expires in 2002, talk among some officials was that Cohen was all but certain to succeed Mahon.

But she is already feeling the heat of public office.

At a board hearing Tuesday, Ventura County Supervisors John K. Flynn and Frank Schillo lashed out at Cohen for failing to notify the board of an audit that found the county owes the state $7 million.

"I don't recall ever hearing anything about it," said Schillo, who withdrew his previous public support for Cohen. "In fact, I found out about it in the newspaper."

Cohen's possible appointment is also stirring criticism among some county residents, who contend that the board is creating a system of incumbents and giving an unfair advantage to those handpicked by county officials.

"It's been an endless process of appointed officials to fill elected positions," said Ojai Valley resident Russ Baggerly, who addressed the board on the issue during its meeting. "It's very difficult to get fresh oversight when you are constantly filling the position from below. And as we have all witnessed, the county of Ventura needs fresh oversight."

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Others have attacked Cohen's potential appointment because, like Mahon, she does not hold a certified public accountant's license. Although it's not a requirement for the post, critics say it should be.

Cohen, meanwhile, sat through Tuesday's board meeting expressionless. She's never held public office, but said she's thick-skinned enough to take on the kind of scrutiny that comes with the high-profile post.

Still, she is reserved when asked about her possible appointment.

"I'd be pleased if they ask me," the soft-spoken Cohen said. "I know not many people are turned on by county government, but I love my job."

She's already had a practice run at the office, sitting at the auditor's helm for the past three months while Mahon tended to his ailing wife. Now that his wife's illness has forced Mahon's early retirement, Cohen stands poised to finish his term.

Cohen joined the county's auditing office in 1979, the same year she completed a master's degree in finance from George Washington University. At the time, she was working with a green card.

Cohen was born in Norway 43 years ago, but got most of her primary education at British and American schools in Caracas before returning to Norway to graduate from high school.

Although she began her college career at Oslo University in Norway in 1975, Cohen said she was eager to follow in the steps of an older brother and come to the United States to study. She applied to Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C., and was accepted to study business administration.

"I jumped at the opportunity," she said.

America has been home ever since for Cohen, who today speaks with no hint of an accent. "It comes out when I'm angry," she said.

By the time she graduated with a master's degree in finance and investments from George Washington in 1979, she was married and began looking for a job. About that time, her husband, then a contracts manager, was transferred to Oxnard, and the couple moved to Ventura County.

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After the move, Cohen got some advice from a new and influential friend that would shape the course of her career.

"I met Sheriff [Al] Jalaty," Cohen said. "And he suggested I apply with the county."

She did, and in November 1979 she started as an accountant. Through the years, she worked her way up the ranks of the county's financial office, working as an analyst, supervising accountant and chief deputy auditor-controller. Then in 1994, she took on the No. 2 post in the office, becoming assistant auditor-controller.

And it wasn't until 1989 that Cohen decided to become an American citizen. Despite considering Ventura County her home, Cohen said she was sentimentally tied to Norway, where her parents still live.

"But once you have kids, your perspective changes," said Cohen, who gave birth to a son in 1984 and a daughter in 1988.

After 21 years with the county, Cohen has built a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense professional who, according to one county official, "probably knows the numbers better than her boss."

But Cohen is fairly protective of the man she considers her mentor. Mahon himself was a longtime county employee, serving as assistant auditor for 21 years before the Board of Supervisors appointed him to the top job in 1993. He was elected to the position the next two terms.

Two county chief administrators have had harsh words for the auditor's position in the past year. In a resignation letter after only four days as county chief administrator, David Baker told supervisors that the auditor's office "plays too much of a policy role, rather than an accounting role."

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