Philip E. Watson, Los Angeles County's tax assessor for 15 turbulent years until he retired in 1977 after battles with heart trouble and then-County Supervisor Baxter Ward, died in Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage Sunday night. He was 62 and had been living in Rancho Mirage with his wife, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nancy Watson.
Watson underwent triple bypass surgery in February, 1977, at the height of his running conflict with Ward and other members of the Board of Supervisors over what they claimed were his "unfair" assessment policies favoring big corporations at the expense of small home owners.
Watson, who declined "on principle" to appear before the board because he was an elected, not appointed, official, argued for years that his policies were based simply on an attempt to equalize the ratio by which all property holders are taxed pursuant to state law.
The investigation featured a highly critical (but basically undocumented) report compiled by former Watergate Senate Committee investigator Carmine Bellino, who was hired by the supervisors, and a probe by the county district attorney and the grand jury at Ward's behest.
Nothing much came of it, save for Watson's bitter decision to quit, Ward's protest that he had never accused the assessor of anything more than unfair assessments, and a successful legal fight by Watson to win a $24,750-a-year disability pension based on his contention that his heart trouble was brought on by his job.
The state Board of Equalization performed its own audit of the county's tax roll and found "no evidence of wrongdoing by Assessor Watson." It said Watson's office had been operated "effectively and efficiently . . . despite the extraordinary complexities inherent in an operation of this size."
"Enough is enough," Watson said in the fall of 1977, when he announced that he would step down.
But in early 1982, at the age of 57, Watson talked of making a comeback, of trying to win his old job again after the passage of Proposition 13, the property tax limitation measure, had "taken the pressure off" the assessor's job.
But that talk faded when the supervisors suggested that they ought to hold a hearing to decide whether Watson had recovered sufficiently to give up his pension.
Ironically, much of the heat and fury that attended Watson during his years in the assessor's office involved his efforts to place on the state ballot initiative measures to put a lid on property taxation.
Three times the voters turned him down--only to approve a similar measure pushed by the late Howard Jarvis in 1978. Proposition 13 was finally embraced by many of those who had ridiculed Watson and opposed his contention that such a lid was necessary to protect the homes of people threatened by skyrocketing property taxes and spending-happy public officials.
'It Was My Idea'
Watson said he was "tickled pink" by the passage of Proposition 13. "God bless him," he said of Jarvis. Then he added a bit ruefully, "My time wasn't right. But it still was my idea, and I know that. . . . "
Watson first won the assessor's job in November, 1962, in his first bid for public office.
He had been a World War II B-17 pilot and had studied accounting at UCLA, getting a job as a field appraiser in the county assessor's office, rising to deputy assessor and finally leaving to be a tax manager for Lockheed Corp. before opening his own office as a tax consultant.
It was in the latter capacity that he began to represent property owners' associations, banded them into the Property Taxpayers Council and lobbied with the Legislature--not too successfully--to make changes in tax laws.
Runs for Assessor Job
He then decided to take a more effective route toward making the kind of reforms he had in mind. He ran for the assessor's job on the slogan, "Stop Unfair Taxation."
"We are rapidly reaching the point, if we haven't already reached it," he said, "where home ownership in Los Angeles is economically unwise."
He went into office determined to fulfill his promises of reforms. From the first, he was embroiled in one battle after another, lawsuit after lawsuit, investigation upon investigation and even--in 1967--an indictment by the county grand jury, which accused him of accepting a $15,000 bribe from J. J. Newberry Corp., the store chain, in exchange for a big tax break.
He was acquitted by the jury in that case at the direction of the judge, who said there had been no evidence showing that a decision by Watson on the Newberry assessment was related to a subsequent contribution to Watson's campaign fund.
The Mud Sticks
"Once you get the mud on you, it never fully comes off," said a distressed Watson, who insisted that he did not grant tax breaks to contributors and, in fact, frequently made assessments unfavorable to them.