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Opinion

L.A. County's colorful, corrupt, backstabbing and bookish assessors

How can a person with as bookish a job as L.A. County tax assessor be colorful?

In endorsing prosecutor John Morris for county assessor, The Times editorial page on Tuesday referred to a few of the county’s more colorful assessors. How can a person with as bookish a job as tax assessor be colorful? Here are a few shades and tones of assessors since 1978, when voters adopted Proposition 13 and drastically changed the job.

The year of the tax revolt began with Assessor Philip E. Watson under continuing assault by Los Angeles County Supervisor Baxter Ward, a former TV news anchor. Ward claimed that Watson’s policies favored big corporations, and he got a former Watergate investigator and then the grand jury to probe the assessor. Watson responded by suing Ward for defamation.

The state Board of Equalization also investigated and found no wrongdoing. But Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp said later that there could have been indictments had Watson stayed in office.

It was Watson’s second brush with the grand jury. He had been indicted in 1967 for allegedly accepting a $15,000 bribe from dime store chain J.J. Newberry in exchange for a later campaign contribution. He was acquitted.

Watson stepped down and went on disability early in 1978, explaining that Ward’s constant hounding had worsened a heart condition.

To fill the vacancy, the Board of Supervisors picked Alexander H. Pope, an attorney and former legislative director for Gov. Pat Brown. By this time, the property tax revolt was in full swing and Proposition 13 was on its way to the ballot.

Pope opposed Proposition 13, but he may have inadvertently ensured its passage by releasing the annual property rolls early and showing a huge jump in values. That got the attention of property-owning voters, who saw that they were about to get slapped with huge tax increases unless they rolled back rates. English majors, insert your Alexander Pope quip here. Perhaps: A little disclosure is a dangerous thing.

Proposition 13 passed and Pope’s primary job became to ensure a smooth transition. He and other assessors became less powerful because they lost much of their discretion over valuation.

And their jobs became easier because as long as real estate values rose, the new taxable value was simply the previous year’s rate plus 2%. Except for property that changed hands or was altered, appraisers could calculate a property’s new value in their heads by moving the decimal point on last year’s value two places to the left, then doubling that number and adding it back. No comps, no negotiations. Of course, if property values declined, some serious reassessment work was still required.

In 1984, Pope tried to move to the Board of Supervisors by challenging Deane Dana but was defeated. Dana then asked voters to make county assessor a board-appointed position instead of an elected one and reminded them that Pope had once called for the same thing. Pope supporters said Dana wanted to appoint his aide, Don Knabe, to the position, but Knabe said he wasn’t interested.

The 1986 county ballot included both an election to replace Pope as assessor and Dana’s measure to eliminate assessor as an elected office, so a person could theoretically get elected and laid off on the same day. Candidates included former Los Angeles City Councilman Gordon Hahn, brother of Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and uncle of future Mayor Jim Hahn. He was considered a shoo-in because of the magical Hahn name.

Also running was former Assemblyman Jim Keysor, who got an appointment to Pope’s office several weeks before the election so that he could use the ballot title “deputy assessor.”

Is any of this sounding familiar? No? OK, stick with it a bit.

Also running was Republican activist John J. Lynch, who had been a low-level deputy assessor for 14 years and had never assumed any management responsibility. He submitted a statement for the official ballot pamphlet, then claimed he was indigent and couldn’t pay the thousands of dollars required for the statement to be included. His claim was rejected, but it was too late to remove the statement, so he got the benefit without paying for it. He beat Keysor in a runoff.

Meanwhile, the Dana measure on appointing assessors was defeated. Two years later, Californians adopted Proposition 66 to prevent any county from ever again trying to make its assessor appointed.

Lynch turned out to be a bully. He once threw county auditors out of his office. He was accused of assaulting an employee. He wasn’t much of a manager either, releasing the property roll late. His staff didn’t like him. His own secretary filed to run against him in 1990. So did Kenneth P. Hahn, a mid-level assessor’s office employee who fielded complaints and supervised no one. Hahn said at the time that he ran chiefly to irritate Lynch.

But Hahn won, presumably because many voters thought they were voting for popular Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, although the Hahn dynasty thing had not worked four years earlier for Supervisor Hahn’s real-life brother Gordon. Just to be clear, the two Kenneth Hahns — the supervisor and the assessor — were unrelated.

Once in office, Assessor Hahn began a harassment campaign against the defeated Lynch. He sent Lynch a job application with a note that read, “John, you’re a loser, always were, always will be. Use this to get a new career.” Now that’s class.

In a lawsuit, Lynch said Hahn also made harassing phone calls late at night and put Lynch’s name on a Great Expectations dating service application.

Eventually Hahn settled into the job and was reelected twice, but he stepped down midterm in 2000, allowing the Board of Supervisors to appoint Rick Auerbach to replace him. Auerbach was elected and reelected three times, then stepped down in 2009 and was replaced for the last few months of the term by Robert Quon.

In his decade in office, Auerbach didn’t get indicted, didn’t bully anyone, didn’t send anyone any harassing mail, didn’t challenge any supervisor at the polls. In short, he was as bookish, buttoned-down, honest and straight-laced as you’d expect your assessor to be. A little disappointing, perhaps. But for assessors, boring is probably better. The most controversial thing Auerbach did was to endorse John Noguez in the 2010 election.

Noguez, unfortunately, was not boring. He is the former Huntington Park mayor who was elected assessor in 2010 and then arrested in 2012 on charges that he did the kind of thing — lowering valuations for campaign donors — of which Assessor Philip E. Watson was accused in 1967, although on a larger scale. It’s worth noting that Noguez served during a time in which many property values were declining, so instead of just calculating the last-year-plus-2% value, his office temporarily regained much of the power over appraisals that Watson had. He is on leave but officially is still the assessor and is drawing his salary. No trial date has been set.

On the 2012 ballot, the Board of Supervisors (now including Don Knabe, who succeeded Deane Dana) asked voters the same thing Dana did in 1986 — wouldn’t they rather the board appoint the assessor? — although the vote was merely advisory because Proposition 66 now prevents counties from ending assessor elections. Voters decided they still didn’t want to give up their power.

This year, one of the leading candidates to replace Noguez, Jeffrey Prang, tried to use the ballot designation “deputy assessor,” but a judge threw it out as misleading because he is not a licensed appraiser.

Prang deserves some sympathy. After all, he has been a real assessor’s office employee for more than two years, unlike Jim Keysor, who was just a volunteer in Alexander Pope’s office for a few weeks but still got to use the “deputy assessor” ballot title back in 1986. That should provide some perspective on whether Prang was trying to push the boundaries or was merely following established precedent.

And speaking of that “deputy assessor” ballot designation, it’s hard to blame any of the nine appraisers who are running this year, most of them with that title. Lynch catapulted from the bottom of the office to the top. Hahn catapulted from the middle. Voters went for them. A candidate might even win without legally changing his middle name to “Lower Taxes,” as one repeat candidate has done. A candidate might even win without having the same name as a county supervisor. Why not give it a go?

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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