California voters will find a dozen statewide propositions on their June 7 primary ballot, and atop the list is a proposed constitutional amendment that may seem as unnecessary as it is obscure.
Proposition 66 would require county assessors to be elected and not appointed to office, even though all 58 California county assessors are already elected by voters.
While critics claim the measure is indeed superfluous and would threaten local autonomy, proponents contend its passage is vital to ensure that counties continue to elect assessors and avoid any political abuse that an appointed position may bring.
'Must Be Insulated'
"One of the main reasons (the measure) is out there for the people to vote on is that we all believe that the assessors must be insulated from revenue demands made by county boards or county administrative officers," said Virginia Loftus, president of the California Assessors Assn. and Shasta County assessor.
"We feel that in order to maintain our posture of independence and our capacity to say no, which is sometimes important, we have to be independent," said Los Angeles County Assessor John Lynch.
Lynch and Loftus spoke this week at a sparsely attended news conference at the downtown Hall of Administration where Lynch admitted that it is difficult to interest voters in what he described as "a backwater position" among elected offices.
But what the assessor's job lacks in political appeal, it makes up for in its influence over hundreds of millions of dollars in local property tax revenue. In Los Angeles alone, property tax revenue accounts for 22% of the county's nearly $7.6-billion budget.
County assessors determine the value of all private property subject to local property taxes, including homes, businesses and personal property such as boats and planes.
Supporters of Proposition 66 contend that assessors, if appointed to their jobs, would be more likely to succumb to pressures to unjustly increase property values or audit businesses of those who may be at odds with a county supervisor. They also warn of assessors being asked to lower tax assessments or increase tax exemptions for campaign contributors or other supporters of politicians who appoint them.
Joining Lynch and Loftus at the news conference were Ventura County Assessor R. J. Sanford, former Los Angeles County Assessor Alexander Pope and state Board of Equalization Member William Bennett, who also urged passage of the ballot measure.
"Assessors are subject to pressures from the county boards of supervisors. That's the nature of the system," said Bennett, who added that an elected assessor can better resist those pressures than one who owes an appointment to those same county supervisors.
While there is no organized opposition to Proposition 66, the County Supervisors Assn. of California opposes the measure and disputes claims that local assessors have been politically pressured.
"I don't believe that has happened," said Barbara Shipnuck, president of the supervisors group and a Monterey County supervisor. "It hasn't been brought to our attention. I think it's just another smoke screen."
Shipnuck said her organization is against Proposition 66 because it is unnecessary and it would erode local autonomy.
"This creates job security for assessors, but it does not allow local voters to determine what form their own county government should take," she added.
Although assessors in all California counties are elected, voters in 12 charter counties could reverse that requirement and make the job an appointed position. In the remaining 46 counties, assessors could be made appointive by a vote of the Legislature. Proposition 66 would remove these provisions from the state Constitution and make the office elective only.
Charter counties include counties such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that have considered changing the assessor's position.
Two years ago, Los Angeles County supervisors sought voter approval to make the assessor's job an appointive position but were overwhelmingly rebuffed when 85% of the voters opposed the idea. A similar proposal in San Francisco was rejected in 1980.
In arguing to eliminate the appointive option for assessors, Loftus pointed out that in some counties, including her own, supervisors have already asked to change other elected positions to appointed posts. She said other county boards may be ready to do the same with assessors.
In 1986, voters statewide passed a ballot measure that called for the election of California's county district attorneys. Eight years earlier, voters mandated that county sheriffs could only take office by being elected.