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Why we shouldn't stop electing county assessors

May 21, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez appears before the county supervisors April 10.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez appears before the county supervisors… (Los Angeles Times )

More bad news for embattled Assessor John Noguez: On Monday, authorities arrested a former county appraiser who'd told The Times that he had lowered assessments on numerous properties to try to spur contributions to Noguez's campaign.

The arrest of Scott Schenter was the first made in connection with a corruption probe that L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley launched into the assessor's office last year. Cooley recently called on Noguez to resign "in light of everything that's come out publicly," so it's safe to assume that Schenter's arrest won't be the last word on the investigation.

That doesn't mean Noguez will ever be charged, or that he should be. Schenter told The Times that the assessor didn't ask him to lower any appraised values; he just inferred that from other comments. The reporting about the office raises questions, but there's too little in the public record at this point to draw conclusions.

Nevertheless, the central allegation in the case -- that Noguez tried to raise money by lowering assessments on potential donors' properties -- points to a fundamental problem with electing assessors rather than appointing them. As The Times' editorial board put it in 2010, "Voters would more likely want an assessor who would tilt toward the low side, to keep taxes down." There's a natural incentive to be seen as sympathetic to the taxpayers, who also happen to be the people casting ballots.

That's not necessarily a corrupting influence, however. An assessor who succumbs to political pressure and lowers property values broadly is no different, really, from a county supervisor who curries favor by voting to raise public employee salaries or cut taxes. It's corruption when specific individuals are favored (or punished) for political gain.

The alternative to electing an assessor would be to have the county Board of Supervisors appoint one, directly or indirectly (e.g., by allowing the county chief executive officer, whom the supervisors appoint, to pick one). That approach has drawbacks too. As the editorial board noted, "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."

That problem can be solved at the ballot box too. If voters chafe at high assessments, they can vote out the supervisors who appointed the assessor. But that's a mighty indirect way for the public to express its will. With that in mind, the editorial board came down in favor of electing assessors back in April 2010, when it endorsed John Y. Wong instead of Noguez to succeed Rick Auerbach.

"What every county actually needs," the board wrote, "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."

In Noguez, voters picked the more politically ambitious and connected candidate. And we may end up in the same boat as San Bernardino County. As a result, some may be tempted to make county assessors into political appointees instead of elected officials. But that's not a solution, it's just trading one potential problem for another.

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