The last time Los Angeles County voters picked an assessor, in 2010, let's just say it didn't work out so well.
Voters understandably went with the candidate with the most political experience, the best fundraising operation, the most campaign mailers and the most endorsements from county supervisors and other elected officials. In return they got two years of John Noguez on the job, followed by another (almost) two years of him drawing what is now a $201,392 annual salary while on leave and preparing a defense to more than 30 criminal counts of conspiracy, perjury, grand theft, accepting bribes, misappropriation by a public officer and embezzlement.
Not long after Noguez's arrest, the Board of Supervisors asked voters in a ballot measure if they thought it might be a good idea to end assessor elections and just let them, the supervisors, appoint someone to the job. Maybe because they remembered that several of the supervisors had backed Noguez in the first place, voters said no thanks, we'll just give it another go ourselves.
So here we are. Twelve candidates are running to succeed Noguez, including nine appraisers and other personnel in the assessor's office. Also running is John Morris, a prosecutor in the L.A. County district attorney's office, which brought and is pursuing the criminal charges against Noguez for allegedly agreeing to reduce the appraised value of properties (and in so doing reduce taxes for the owners) in exchange for campaign contributions or other consideration. The Times recommends a vote for Morris, but not necessarily for the reason that might first come to mind.
There is something about the job of county tax assessor that raises concerns about corruption. An elected official who needs to raise campaign cash but who also has power over how high or low a potential donor's property taxes will be inevitably requires a measure of public scrutiny. And the relative obscurity of the assessor can make for some interesting officeholders.
L.A. had an assessor, for instance, who turned out to be a bully, assaulting an employee and throwing county auditors out of his office. He was defeated after one term by a man who gloated over his victory by sending his rival an employment application.
If the allegations against him are correct, Noguez set a new basement for Los Angeles County assessor conduct. But the system worked: He was investigated and charged, and he moved aside. The county is better off with elected assessors than it would be with Board of Supervisors appointments, because even though elections bring us the occasional odd or even corrupt assessor, they also bring the independence necessary to resist pressure from supervisors to maximize tax revenue or to help out a constituent.
Although the skill and dedication displayed by the many appraisers vying for the top job this year is impressive, the most talented or most experienced appraiser does not automatically make the best county assessor. What the office needs instead is a manager, someone who can successfully handle a budget, make personnel decisions and complete projects such as, for example, a computer system to replace the one that numerous county assessors have been complaining about since the 1980s.
The ideal candidate would be an experienced manager with a real estate background, a backbone and a reputation for integrity. No such candidate is running.
The Times recommends Morris, but not because a criminal prosecutor is needed to "clean up" the office. The mess that Noguez made of things has largely been cleaned up already by seasoned county managers who separated the professional appraisal functions from the more political outreach functions, and by new ordinances that ban contributions from the professional go-betweens whom some property owners hire to secure more favorable appraisals. The trick now should be to balance the efficiency and proper management put in place by temporary appointed department leaders with the independence of an elected assessor who has the good sense to keep things on track. Morris may lack the management experience, but he has the real estate background, the backbone and the integrity.
The Times chooses him over our pick from four years ago, John Wong, the former head of the Assessment Appeals Board. Wong was disliked in the assessor's office for openly scoffing at appraisals he felt were too high. That dislike is by no means disqualifying, but Wong's contempt often seemed misplaced.
Also running is Jeffrey Prang, a longtime staffer for elected officials in Southern California, including a stint with former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. Prang has also served as an assistant city manager in Pico Rivera, is an elected member of the West Hollywood City Council — and was hired by Noguez, when he was still coming to work, to help get the assessor's office in shape.