By Matt O'Brien
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND -- In the first contested race in 28 years to be Alameda County's auditor-controller, one candidate is a veteran insider. The other is a reform-minded outsider whose candidacy has been tarnished by six felony charges.
If he wins the June 3 election, Chief Deputy Auditor Steve Manning promises to seamlessly continue the leadership style and policies of his boss, Auditor-Controller/Clerk-Recorder Patrick O'Connell, who is retiring at the end of the year after directing the accounting and record-keeping agency since 1987.
"We're pretty similar people. We're hands-on," Manning said.
Manning's opponent, senior home owner Kathleen Knox, promises to root out waste and fraud but now has her own fraud accusations to worry about. She was arrested and charged this month with lying about her residency to run for the job and illegally voting in a San Leandro election despite living in Contra Costa County. She pleaded not guilty on May 6.
The criminal case has brought unexpected attention to a little-watched but important 161-year-old auditing office with a $31.2 million budget and 227 employees. Alameda County is one of just a handful in California where the jobs of chief auditor, controller, recorder and county clerk are all held by one person -- a consolidation that O'Connell oversaw in 1992. The wide range of duties includes reviewing invoices, auditing grants, resolving contract disputes and keeping maps.
Manning said his 27-year career in Alameda County's auditing office, including 12 years as O'Connell's chief deputy, make him the best candidate.
"The job we consider most dearly is accountability," Manning said. "We have to keep track of all the county's expenditures, all the revenues."
In the clerk-recorder role, Manning promises to treat county residents as customers. He wants to open satellite offices so residents in far-flung parts of the county do not have to travel to downtown Oakland to retrieve important documents.
As the auditor, he wants to closely monitor the expenses of county officials and strengthen internal controls.
"If we see someone going out for a steak and lobster, we're going to flag that," Manning said.
He could think of no examples, however, of when he or his office uncovered major fraud or gross negligence.
Knox has not returned phone calls since her arrest and arraignment, but in an earlier interview, she promised to take a different approach by aggressively examining waste, fraud, financial conflicts of interest, unjustified car allowances and the "outrageous pay" she said is awarded to Alameda County executives and elected supervisors.
The auditor's post is itself a high-paying job. The annual salary will be $287,445 in 2015, when the new auditor takes office, according to the county counsel's office. Adding benefits to gross pay, the total cost of employing O'Connell last year was about $404,000, according to this newspaper's salary database.
"This position has gone unopposed for almost 30 years, leaving Alameda County residents and voters with little or no idea about what the office and the job are about," Knox said on her campaign website. "If I had not filed my papers on March 12, the legacy and the voter's right to a choice of candidates would still be denied."
O'Connell, who turns 71 next month, said in an interview that he planned to run for another four-year term but backed out after talking with his wife about retirement. He told Manning about his decision just a week or so before the March filing deadline, both men said. That left just three days for outside candidates to learn about the open seat and file papers.
O'Connell has endorsed his deputy. So have all five members of the Board of Supervisors, the county sheriff and Fremont's mayor, according to Manning. Knox lists endorsements by several San Leandro politicians, including City Council members Diana Souza and Ursula Reed. San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy rescinded his endorsement after Knox's arrest.
Manning and Knox are both registered Democrats and parents of school-age kids. Manning grew up in Oakland's Fruitvale district and currently lives in the city. Knox, the daughter of a former Alameda County treasurer and supervisor, also grew up in Oakland, but her current residency is disputed.
She listed the Rose Gate assisted living home in San Leandro as her home address on voter and candidacy papers. She owns and runs the Clarke Street facility but admitted to this newspaper that she does not currently live in the building. She said she now lives in an apartment across the street that overlooks the senior home. The Alameda County District Attorney's Office has accused her of residing in a house she owns in Danville, which is in Contra Costa County.
ALAMEDA COUNTY AUDITOR-CONTROLLER CANDIDATES
Career: Alameda County's chief deputy auditor since 2002
Education: Attended Cal Stae East Bay