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Orange County

His Job Is to Know Where the Dollars Go

Auditor-controller Sundstrom, drawn to O.C. by the bankruptcy, keeps tabs on spending -- especially any sweetening of employee contracts.

November 02, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

David E. Sundstrom isn't a name that rings many bells. Residents don't pay taxes to him, they don't record legal documents through him, they aren't arrested by him and they don't read about him much in the paper.

But as auditor-controller, Sundstrom has an essential task: overseeing how public money is spent.

In recent months, he hasn't liked what he's seen.

Sundstrom has repeatedly questioned the burden of popular wage-and-benefit boosts granted to county employees.

He criticized as too risky a proposed bond issue deemed safe by finance officials.

He advised county supervisors to end a decades-old system for charging for building inspections and plan checks.

Last week, County Executive Officer James D. Ruth assured the Board of Supervisors that Sundstrom, 51, would be the taxpayers' point man on a new committee that will assess the effect on future budgets of any sweetening of a dozen employee contracts up next year.

The role, suggested by two supervisors, was endorsed by the Orange County Grand Jury, which criticized board decisions for not adequately safeguarding taxpayers.

"From a conservative financial standpoint, David and I agree on basically everything," said John M.W. Moorlach, the county's much more visible and flamboyant treasurer, who gained fame for questioning the risky investments that led to Orange County's historic 1994 bankruptcy.

It was the bankruptcy that led Sundstrom to Orange County.

As auditor for the California State University system, Sundstrom was working in Long Beach in 1995 when his wife, Cristina, alerted him to a newspaper advertisement for an internal auditor post in Orange County government.

The job had been handled by then-Auditor-Controller Steve Lewis.

But supervisors lost faith in Lewis after the bankruptcy and decided they needed their own fiscal watchdog on patrol.

Sundstrom got the job and moved the family -- including sons Eric, 15, and Jason, 13 -- to Orange.

"I traded my view of the Queen Mary for shutters that don't open," he said, referring to his drab, 1960-built offices in the Hall of Finance.

In 1998, Sundstrom ran for county auditor and won, replacing the beleaguered Lewis.

The job includes controller responsibilities delegated by supervisors. He was reelected in 2002 with no opposition.

As controller, he is essentially the paymaster for the county's 17,800 employees. He and his staff of 400 process 1 million checks a year.

As auditor, Sundstrom can say no to spending requests.

That ranges from refusing to pay an expense voucher without proper receipts to putting the brakes on a $370-million bond issue that county finance officials wanted approved in October to cover an actuarial deficit in the county pension fund.

The bond proceeds would have been invested in the stock market in the hope that they would generate extra income to cover increases in county pension costs.

But market volatility made the bet risky; if the market were to drop, the county would have to repay the bonds and still owe the additional pension costs, Sundstrom warned supervisors. The board rejected the idea.

The supervisors have increasingly relied on Sundstrom for independent financial advice -- and should heed it more, said Supervisor Chris Norby, who was elected last year.

"I think he needs to be more [assertive]," Norby said.

"He's not beholden to anyone but the public. That's how it should be."

Sundstrom said he's accustomed to being the contrarian.

Before working for the state university system, he was the campus auditor for UC Davis for nine years.

A Republican, he attends Sunday services with a very liberal Unitarian congregation in Orange.

His Corvette bears the license plate, SLOW CPA. (Moorlach's license reads, "SKY FELL.")

"What I learned through the Steve Lewis experience was that it's not enough to be a perfect functionary; you have to be outspoken constantly," Sundstrom said.

"I am responsible directly to the voters. The finances of the county need to be out in the open."

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