The race for Santa Barbara County auditor-controller tends to be a snoozer. But this year, the contest for the top accountant is quickly turning into a hyperlocal cage fight. This year’s race pits two county employees — Betsy Schaffer and Jennifer Christensen — against one another. Though the role of auditor-controller is nonpartisan, politics appear to be playing a role.
Schaffer — who was born in Korea and adopted at age 3, and moved to Santa Maria as a child — has worked for the county auditor’s office for a total of 16 years. She intermittently had stints at Santa Barbara public agencies and in the private sector. She is backed by outgoing county auditor Theo Fallati and retired longtime auditor Bob Geis. Democratic strategist Mary Rose is running her campaign, and she has the support of the three Democratic county supervisors — Janet Wolf, Joan Hartmann, and Das Williams.
On the other side is Jen Christensen, who was raised by a single mom in the San Fernando Valley with her brother. She also has about 16 years under her belt in county departments, including County Counsel, the Office of the Auditor-Controller, and most recently, the treasurer’s office. She, too, is backed by her boss, county treasurer Harry Hagen. She is also endorsed by the two North County supervisors, Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino. Two years ago, Christensen unsuccessfully ran against Williams in the race for 1st District supervisor.
Asked why she is running, Christensen emphasized she wants to bring “financial stability to the county.” For her part, Schaffer said she believes she has “more direct experience in the auditor’s office and with accounting in general.” She admitted she wished Fallati would run for another term. (Fallati, who is 61, said he is ready to retire.)
Christensen questioned the fact that Fallati, the current auditor, lived out of the county in Ventura when he was being considered for the position in 2016. “We are now going to be paying him a pension based on a $200,000 salary rather than $150,000,” she argued, adding that that translates to $2 million over the course of his lifetime.
Because he needed Santa Barbara County residency to hold the position, Fallati temporarily rented a room in the house of Betsy Schaffer’s ex-husband, Rick Schaffer. (Fallati now has his own place in Santa Barbara.) Rick worked for the county auditor’s office in the early 1990s, when he was part of a team with Betsy that developed one of the county’s first financial systems. He left to start his own company, Simpler Systems, which now contracts with the county and government entities and universities throughout the country. “He is an incredibly brilliant guy,” Geis said. “He helped me do accounting things that were really revolutionary.”
Christensen charged that the close relationship between the auditor-controller’s office and one of the county’s longtime vendors gives the appearance of impropriety or the “even more grim possibility of actual impropriety.”
This dynamic is playing out in the context of the county’s biggest financial scandals in recent memory — last year’s $1.7 million embezzlement case. While Christensen supporters argue this case demonstrates the need for new leadership, Geis said it was actually Betsy Schaffer who helped catch the culprit and notify law enforcement. A receptionist at the auditor’s desk brought it to her attention. The case allegedly involves a longtime Public Works employee who issued at least 235 checks to a group of friends and relatives. “The controls eventually caught the crook,” Geis said. “This isn’t the first crook at the county.”
As for the county’s financial system, Schaffer explained she was proud of the one the team developed in the ’90s. Over the years it has evolved. “We saved the taxpayer millions and millions of dollars,” she said. “The bigger system costs $30 million to $50 million dollars.” She added that other counties have wanted to buy it.
Geis, who supervised Christensen for some time, has jumped in the fray. On Tuesday, he filed a petition challenging Christensen’s qualifications. He formally requested her name be removed from the ballot. He argued she does not have a degree in accounting, has not served as a ranking member of the auditor’s office for a period of three consecutive years, and is not a certified public accountant — requirements all auditor-controllers must have. On Wednesday, the county election’s office rejected the petition.
Though Fallati fits these criteria, Christensen retorted: “The only one not qualified for this was Theo.”