Thursday, May 27, 2010
For the past two decades the Monterey County treasurer-tax collector race has amounted to voters drawing a line in front of Lou Solton’s name. But with Solton retiring, three candidates, Assistant Treasurer Mary Zeeb, Chief Deputy Auditor Ron Holly and financial services executive John McPherson, have spiced up the usually-bland June primary with Holly confessing that he’s not a real lawyer, Zeeb defending a $30 million investment loss during the financial meltdown, and McPherson looking to apply private cost-cutting to a public post.
Holly, a former U.S. Security and Exchange Commission compliance specialist, made the biggest announcement splash when all five county supervisors endorsed him. He impressed elected officials in 2009 by refinancing Natividad Medical Center bonds at a savings of $1.5 million.
But his golden-boy image degenerated at a campaign forum when Zeeb questioned whether he was a lawyer as he stated on his official campaign statement. Holly admits he hasn’t passed a bar exam and has an unaccredited law degree. He says it was an innocent proofreading mistake.
“I had to do a very last-minute candidate statement,” Holly says. “I never held myself to be a lawyer, never would.”
Holly has accused Zeeb of trying to smear his name since it was Brian Higgins, Zeeb’s campaign manager, who alerted media and reported the misstatement to the Registrar of Voters, who forwarded the complaint to the District Attorney’s Office. At press time, the D.A. was still reviewing potential election code violations.
The mishap cost Holly his endorsement from the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce, not to mention local newspapers, and both Zeeb and McPherson have pounced on him for misleading voters.
“That is your pledge to the voters, that this is who you are,” McPherson says. “You got to make sure it’s right.”
Since Zeeb has been in the treasurer’s office for 23 years and is endorsed by Solton, she has been on the receiving end of arguments normally reserved for an incumbent. Both McPherson and Holly have called for a close look at office staffing and criticized Zeeb for a $30 million investment loss in 2008, when Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual went under.
At the time, the loss amounted to about 3 percent of the county’s $1 billion investment portfolio, Zeeb says, adding that $5.6 million has already been recouped, and the county is aggressively pursuing its lawsuit against the firms.
Holly says he would change the county’s investment policy to respond to security downgrades and not solely rely on rating agencies. “I would have a much more conservative investment policy,” he says. “It may not accrue as much interest, but it would greatly cut down on losses in the future.”
McPherson says he’d examine the county’s process to ensure investment losses don’t occur. Zeeb says the treasurer office has already taken action by assigning an investment officer solely focused on monitoring county stocks.
McPherson, who served on Salinas’ Blue Ribbon Budget Committee, says he’d take the same approach the committee did in analyzing how to streamline government operations. “Are we getting the best possible service for those tax dollars?” he asks.
Zeeb says taxpayer service could be improved by allowing customers to receive bills and manage their account online. In a dig to her two opponents, she adds: “Now is not the time to bring someone in who needs on-the-job training.”