BY WILLIAM ROLLER
The Imperial County Auditor-Controller is an under-the-radar political office not often given much scrutiny, but there is a rare challenger to the incumbent and their battle could warrant greater attention leading up to the June 5 primary.
By the end of 2018 Douglas Newland will have completed five four-year terms in the office. He recently confided he had contemplated not seeking re-election but then realized he was not prepared to retire.
“With a new CEO (county Chief Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr.) coming on I felt that it would be good for the county if I stay and provide support in the transition,” said Newland. “Additionally, I enjoy the job and like helping the county.”
Newland’s lone challenger to date is El Centro certified public accountant Josue Mercado. For the June 5 primary a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote, plus one, to win the seat. If that majority is not reached the top two finishers will face off in the Nov. 6 general election.
What Newland said he brings to the office in addition to incumbency is that he spent seven years in public accounting and 20 years in banking as a controller/cashier. Outside of work, he has served as treasurer for the El Centro Kiwanis noontime club for 12 years and participates in a music group that performs at local events.
The mission of the auditor-controller is to maintain the financial integrity of the county by providing oversight of fiscal management. The position provides the independent allocation of property taxes to the county, school districts, cities, special districts and redevelopment agencies.
“The simplest explanation of property tax is that the tax is one percent of the assessed valuation of the property (by state law) plus any direct charges, such as mosquito abatement…,” Newland said.
Mercado is a supervisor at Hutchinson and Bloodgood, LLP, in El Centro where he has worked for nearly a decade.
As of Jan. 30, both he and Newland were the only ones to take out a petition in lieu of paying the $1218 filing fee to run for the office, according to the county Elections Department website. To get the fee waived they will each need to gather 4,063 signatures supporting their candidacy, the elections office stated.
“Currently, I’m approaching people and asking for their support,” said Mercado. “So far I have noticed many are not familiar with the significance of the position. But I have enjoyed getting their ideas and encouragement. This is a commitment I will take to heart.”
Mercado is a veteran of the U.S. Navy where he served as a hospital corpsman. He attended Imperial Valley College and earned an associate degree in business administration and information systems. He then earned a bachelor’s degree from Baker College in Flint, Michigan.
Mercado has been involved with the Imperial Valley Joint Chambers of Commerce, serving as 2008-09 chairman. He is currently on the board of directors of First Imperial Credit Union and serves as vice-chair of the Imperial County Workforce Development Board.
“I decided to run because I want to raise awareness of how vital the office is for the progress of the county,” said Mercado. “I feel my involvement in the community will allow me to prosper as auditor-controller for the benefit of the county.”
While relatively obscure, the auditor-controller’s political race has the same elements as its more notable cousins. Candidates must get their names and messages out to the voters and convince them to show up on election day and pull the lever in their favor.
The Conveyor Group, a full-service marketing agency based in Imperial, has been retained to assist many political hopefuls over the last 20 years. Owner Aaron Popejoy noted one of the challenges for the auditor-controller candidates is it is an office many could think is a hired or appointed position.
While clarifying he is not working with either candidate, Popejoy agreed to offer his perspectives.
Explaining name recognition would play an important role for an office many infrequent voters may not pay attention to, he said, “Informing people what the auditor-controller does may not help, which means the campaign would be an exercise in mass branding. But in a less popular election the ‘high propensity’ voter will turn out and tend to favor an incumbent.”
However, Popejoy noted Mercado is well known for having served in a number of volunteer leadership roles.
“There are selling points for either candidate to promote,” he added. “Our approach would be to look at other races on the ballot and try to forecast turnout based on historical voting data.”
Popejoy cautioned if the two candidates do not plan correctly based on data and people working alongside them (for guidance) they are not going to get the needed votes. A winning candidate must offer substance and persuasion to make a change in the office, he said, and having more yard signs does not mean getting more votes. Successful strategic branding is far more complex, Popejoy stressed.
An unknown for whoever holds the office for the next four years is the impact of the recent federal tax cuts.
“This is an area we’ll all like to know,” said Newland. “It depends on what changes happen at the state level, which could affect the grant funds we get from the state.”
Newland admits he enjoys being the auditor-controller since the office is involved in all county departments through accounts payable, payroll and internal controls. He stressed he likes finding ways to increase efficiency, accountability and transparency of government.
Mercado noted his focus will be to spread the message to vote for him on June 5.
“I’m grateful to all that have been kind to offer their support and I will work hard to make them proud for making the right choice,” he said.