Every now and then, California voters snap, and it's no wonder. It's all those irritating questions: Should we change the law to help out an insurance company? How about a giant utility? Who should we put on the Board of Equalization? Who should be the next county assessor?
It's not that we don't appreciate the privilege of voting. It's just that Californians go into each election season expecting to be able to select their leaders and find out that they instead have to wade through complex ballot measures and figure out what a Board of Equalization is.
Four years ago, The Times' editorial page tried to be helpful by suggesting that some jobs really ought to be eliminated, like, say, lieutenant governor. Perhaps others, like county assessor, ought to be appointed.
We haven't grown any fonder of the office of lieutenant governor, but on reflection we realize that choosing among county assessor candidates is one of those burdens that voters must continue to shoulder. The assessor runs the office that appraises real estate and calculates property taxes, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors would have an unmistakable incentive to appoint an assessor who would always value property on the high end, to maximize county tax receipts. Voters would more likely want an assessor who would tilt toward the low side, to keep taxes down. What every county actually needs is an assessor who doesn't tilt at all but whose decisions are as accurate and as evenhanded — and as free from political influence — as possible.
There's the rub. Voters must try to pick someone who is relatively free from politics, because they don't want valuation decisions being made as rewards or punishments for political support. We don't want to end up like neighboring San Bernardino County, whose assessor resigned last year and is currently under investigation for political corruption. But voters must make their decision using the political process and without knowing much at all about the candidates.
This can lead to some interesting results. Former Los Angeles County Assessor Kenneth P. Hahn, elected in 1990, did a credible job through his tenure, but it's fairly certain that he won that first race because at least some voters thought they were getting county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, or at least a member of his family. They weren't. The assessor was not from the legendary Hahn dynasty. By the way, there's a Hahn on this year's assessor ballot as well, also unrelated to the late county supervisor, the judge and former mayor or the current City Council member and candidate for lieutenant governor.
Those who want to be elected and aren't named Hahn have sometimes taken more brazen approaches. In Tennessee, assessor candidate Byron Looper legally changed his middle name from "Anthony" to "Low Tax." And voters elected him. He was eventually indicted for official misconduct, and later convicted of and imprisoned for murdering an election opponent. Fortunately, no Los Angeles candidates match his record, although there is one repeat candidate on the ballot who changed his middle name to "Lower Taxes." But why go halfway? If a candidate is going to play the name-change game, he might as well change his first name to "Assessor" and try to run as the incumbent.
In recent years, some of Los Angeles County's best assessors, including the recently retired Rick Auerbach, were those appointed by the Board of Supervisors to fill a vacancy and then reelected for one or more terms by voters. That kind of antic always seemed inappropriate when the board tried to pick the sheriff ahead of election day, but for assessor it seemed like the best of both worlds — the supervisors in effect nominate, but voters still have the power to oversee their decision. This time, though, when Auerbach left, the board chose a man who also is planning to retire and who is not seeking the post at the ballot box.
A majority of the 13 assessor candidates are currently employees who have worked a decade or two — or three — in the assessor's office and think they have what it takes for the top job. Most of them don't. Experience is good, but voters should look for an assessor with more than expertise in real and personal property valuation, and more than complaints about how people in one division of the office ought to do things more like people in another division of the office. Candidates should have sufficient management experience to be able to lead an office of nearly 1,500 employees with an annual budget of more than $160 million, appraising 2.5 million parcels of property.
Several candidates have previously held political office or have worked on politicians' staffs, and that should by no means be considered disqualifying. Huntington Park Councilman John Noguez is a longtime employee of the assessor's office and has won support from Auerbach and two county supervisors.
Of all the candidates, however, the most appropriate choice for the job is businessman John Y. Wong. Although not a deputy assessor, Wong — who has run before — knows the office, its staff and its processes well through his role as chairman of the Assessment Appeals Board. He has run successful businesses and is an expert on the principles and technicalities of real estate valuation. He understands the issues that face property owners in an era of fluctuating values, and he is the best candidate to keep the focus on fair valuation and public service rather than office politics or political advancement.