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Supervisors inexplicably fail to act on Baca, Noguez

Surely the panel that oversees L.A. County could do more to to pressure the sheriff and assessor to resign.

May 20, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, left, and County Assessor John Noguez.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, left, and County Assessor John Noguez. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

"I'm very excited," newly elected L.A. County Assessor John Noguez said almost two years ago after outspending his rival by more than $600,000 in a runoff campaign. "I believe the constituents believe that I will continue the legacy of continued excellence."

So much for continuing the legacy of continued excellence, or whatever Noguez was talking about. Now he's the target of a criminal corruption probe having to do with alleged tax breaks for his campaign contributors, and he's in a tight race with L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca to grab the trophy for worst county department head in recent memory.

Meanwhile, is anyone surprised that we've heard next to nothing from L.A. County's mummified supervisors about two department heads who have brought shame to the county? Have they all been kidnapped and locked in vaults?

As for Noguez, who insists he's done nothing wrong, the many questions that come to mind include this one: Why do we elect, rather than appoint, the county assessor? At least on that point L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe has spoken up.

"I've always advocated for it to be an appointed position," Knabe told me, and he argued earlier this month that "there cannot be even a suggestion of external pressures or influence-peddling."

Knabe has also called for requiring tax agents who work on behalf of clients to get property assessments lowered to register as lobbyists. And he has asked for an investigation of what it would take to switch the job of assessor from an elected to an appointed position, so that someone who is doing a horrible job can be fired.

But the answers are not encouraging. The state Constitution requires that county assessors in California be elected, and changing that would require legislative approval to put an amendment on the ballot, which voters would then have to approve. Knabe said it also appears that L.A. County would then have to ask voters to make a charter change. The problem is, in 1986, L.A. County voters overwhelmingly decided -- with a vote of 85%, to be exact -- not to make that change.

And in 1988, the statewide vote was 3-to-1 in favor of keeping the county assessor an elected job along with sheriff and district attorney, with proponents arguing that this kept the assessor free of pressures from supervisors and other county executives.

"We feel that in order to maintain our posture of independence and our capacity to say no," then-L.A. County Assessor John Lynch said in 1988, "we have to be independent." Yeah, but what about independence from campaign donors? Call me undemocratic if you like, but I don't think we do ourselves any favors when we insist on electing assessors, sheriffs and even judges.

How many times have you looked at the names of judicial candidates on a ballot and scratched your head? Sure, you might be among the tiny fraction of voters who took the time to consider a bar association endorsement or some other recommendation, but as a lay person, can you have any clue who might make a good judge? I'd rather risk the politics of merit selection -- in which professionals make appointments -- than have ill-informed voters close their eyes and make haphazard guesses in elections with 17% turnout.

Getting back to Noguez, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley last week called for the assessor to resign, saying, "I don't think he should be there." It might have meant something if Cooley had been joined in applying pressure by the supervisors. But the supes remained comatose.

"If any of those charges are validated in any way, shape or form, I think he should step aside," Knabe said. And how long might that take? Regardless of the outcome of the criminal probe, Times investigative reporters Ruben Vives and Jack Dolan have already laid out enough damning evidence to call Noguez's fitness for office into question.

And what about Baca? If he hasn't yet hit the supervisors' bar for chronic mismanagement and serial screw-ups in one department, how high is the bar?

You'd almost have to conclude the supes haven't been reading the excellent reporting of my colleagues Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard. At this point, the FBI and everyone else is investigating alleged jailhouse abuse by deputies and off-duty misconduct as well, with potentially costly lawsuits pending and a retired commander alleging that Baca ignored his warnings about excessive force.

And that's just for starters. Seven deputies are on leave over suspicion that their tattoo-wearing clique celebrated officer-involved shootings. Baca illegally appeared in a TV ad for district attorney candidate Carmen Trutanich. An independent monitor concluded that complaints against deputies are not handled in a timely manner. Baca political donors became reserves and were given county cars.

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