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Assessing the assessor's office

Editorial

An audit of the L.A. County assessor's office delivers mostly common-sense recommendations to address the bribery controversy there.

January 06, 2013
  • A new audit of the Los Angeles County assessor's office recommends that the assessor employ a chief deputy with "substantial assessor experience and expertise and demonstrated managerial competence."
A new audit of the Los Angeles County assessor's office recommends… (Los Angeles Times )

An audit of the L.A. County assessor's office delivers mostly common-sense recommendations to address the bribery controversy.

The recommendations of a new audit of the Los Angeles County assessor's office are a responsible, if somewhat depressing, reaction to the controversy that has embroiled that department for months. Its top official, John Noguez, has been arrested and charged with accepting bribes from a tax consultant who was seeking reduced assessments for his client's properties, a charge that, as the audit notes, creates the impression that "the property tax system in Los Angeles County is being gamed by politically connected taxpayers." That's somewhat obvious, as is the audit's conclusion that such an impression might encourage others to game the system, and that changes are in order to restore public confidence.

The audit, commissioned by the Board of Supervisors and conducted by an independent firm, recommends that the assessor employ a chief deputy with "substantial assessor experience and expertise and demonstrated managerial competence," a sensible-enough notion, though it's difficult to imagine why it took an audit to reach that conclusion. It also recommends that tax consultants working on behalf of private clients effectively register as lobbyists, limiting both the gifts they can give and the authorities with whom they may negotiate. An ordinance to that effect is being drafted, and seems a logical response to the problems uncovered in the office so far.

The auditors enter deeper water with another recommendation, however, suggesting that if the chief deputy assessor's job opens up "within six months before or after a change in the elected assessor," it should be filled not by the assessor but by the Board of Supervisors. If that means the supervisors would appoint an "acting" deputy to serve for just a brief period until the elected assessor gets settled in and can choose his own No. 2, that might be acceptable. But it would be a mistake to allow a long-term deputy to be selected by the board to work in the office with the assessor.

This is a recurring issue in Los Angeles County government. Department after department has suffered over the years from the excessive involvement of the supervisors. They tend to react strongly to any sense of crisis, inserting themselves into operational matters that should be handled by professionals. That's not to say the board is always wrong; supervisors have a duty to supervise, and they should be alert to signs that departments are losing their way or failing to serve the public. But when they insert themselves into department operations, they often undermine their managers.

"The criteria for being the assessor is not management experience but rather the number of votes received," the audit notes. Fair enough, but it's worth remembering that those are the criteria for being a member of the Board of Supervisors too.

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