San Luis Obispo County Assessor Tom Bordonaro is known to hang a sign on his office door.
"Gone Fishin'," it reads.
The quip, according to several current and former employees of the office, symbolizes the reality of Bordonaro's leadership at the helm of the department—defined by absenteeism, paperwork and personnel decision delays, and a top-down management style.
"It was unbelievable the amount of times I'd go to the area of Tom's office and be like, 'Where's Tom?'" said Gloria Becerra, an Assessor's Office employee of 21 years who retired in 2015. "He was not in the office—one time for at least a year."
Eleven current and former employees who spoke with New Times said Bordonaro's chronic absence had a detrimental effect on the office. They said Bordonaro is often said to be working from home, or, as he reportedly terms it, "the ranch." Several staffers estimated an attendance record of 10 percent over his last two terms.
"He just wasn't there very often," said Betty Willetts, who retired in 2016. "He was gone weeks at a time, then might come in two days, and be gone again. There would be a conference, and they'd get him on the speakerphone. But it's different having the guy there, absorbing the culture of what's happening in the office."
"He is an absentee department head and certainly has been for the past eight years," one current staffer said on the condition of anonymity. "It's been affecting morale in the office for some time."
Bordonaro, 59, is seeking a fifth term in the June 5 primary election. He faces a challenger for the first time: former Assessor's Office employee David Boyer, who's slammed Bordonaro's attendance in his campaign.
Bordonaro was first elected as assessor in 2002 after serving as a Republican state Assemblyman. Since 2012, he's undergone four surgeries—procedures he said were complicated by a pre-existing spinal injury that's kept him wheelchair-bound for most of his life.
"It was a pretty rough five years," Bordonaro said of the surgeries. "That led to extended periods where I wasn't in the office."
Bordonaro said he fully performed his assessor duties during that period, mostly from home.
"I had to lay down. I had to be on my side," he said. "So I'd have to use conference calls and email to keep in touch with my management staff. I did personnel interviews. I did new-hire interviews with Skype. I was still very much involved in the office."
Employees alleged more than periodic medical absences—describing a detachment from the department dating back to before the surgeries. Much of the office's responsibilities have been delegated to managers who report to him, they said.
"By doing that, he basically didn't have to show up," said another employee, who also requested anonymity. "We have a great office. He takes all the credit, and we do all the work."
The assessor is responsible for valuing all real and personal property in SLO County, overseeing roughly 85 employees and a $10 million budget.
For 2018-19, the top job is budgeted for a $173,576 base salary—about $250,000 with benefits. Bordonaro has earned more than $2 million over his 16-year tenure.
Bordonaro said his leadership style is not to "micromanage," but he flatly denied allegations of being disengaged from the office or allowing any slips in productivity. He said the office is "in excellent condition" and boasts "one of the lowest appeal rates in the state."
"I do not sit and look over 85 employees' shoulders," Bordonaro said. "They each have a manager and supervisor, and we have worked very hard on establishing measurable performance standards."
He added that he's often busy performing other duties as a publicly elected assessor.
"I'm in the field. Taxpayers have issues out on their properties. There's a lot that goes on to educate the public on the very complex and convoluted taxation code," Bordonaro said. "I do not sit behind a desk 40 hours per week. That's not the job of the assessor."
Not all employees were critical of Bordonaro's leadership. Lesa Gofourth, a manager and employee for 32 years, said she felt "disgusted" by some of the accusations made against him.
"None of those people would have dealt directly with Tom from the level that they're at," Gofourth alleged. "You don't go talk to the CFO of the company when you're selling widgets. There's management, there's supervision, and that's the chain of command.
"Tom works for the people of this county, and we carry out Tom's directive and goals," she added. "I have the upmost respect for his leadership."
But others say Bordonaro's physical absence created a "void in leadership" that not only affected morale, but caused delays in resolving property assessment disputes and other issues.
"The functioning of the office has been greatly affected by lack of decisions, decisions that would fall to him," said a current employee.
Records aren't available to document Bordonaro's work schedule. But minutes from assessment appeal hearings show a trend: Between 2007 and 2010, Bordonaro went to 88 percent of the hearings. From 2011 to 2014, his attendance dropped to 53 percent. Since January 2015, Bordonaro has attended 4 of 28 hearings.
In response, Bordonaro said assessors in counties of SLO's size don't often attend appeal hearings, allowing staff to handle them.
Staffers critical of Bordonaro say taxpayers deserve to know about his attendance record as they decide who to elect.
"I normally wouldn't get involved in politics, but in this particular instance I felt compelled to voice my opinion to let the voters know," said Sara Sylwester, who retired in 2014 after a 26-year career in the office. "They really should know what's going on." Δ
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.