DECISION '94 : Orange County Contests : Bitter Battles Waged for Low-Profile County Offices

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The treasurer-tax collector and clerk-recorder are two of the county's lowest-profile elected offices, but they've produced a pair of heated election battles this year that have entrenched incumbents facing unusually strong challenges.

After 23 years in office, county Treasurer Robert L. Citron is locked in a bitter battle with John M.W.Moorlach, a certified public accountant who has criticized Citron's investment practices.

Recorder Lee A. Branch, who was censured by county officials for misconduct earlier this year, is being challenged by county Clerk Gary L. Granville, a veteran elected official whose position is being eliminated as a cost-cutting measure. Ella M. Murphy, Branch's top assistant, also is seeking to oust her boss, along with attorney Christopher J. Leanders.

Those two races are among five countywide seats that will be decided June 7. Local voters will be asked to select a superintendent of schools, public administrator and county assessor.

Three other countywide offices are not contested: Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi and County Auditor Steven E. Lewis are running unopposed for reelection.

In the race for county assessor, 19-year incumbent Bradley L. Jacobs faces two of his employees: Larry Lee Bales, an auditor-appraiser, and David J. Holbert, the deputy assessor.

Jacobs' office was criticized last year for the slow pace in processing tens of thousands of appeals for property tax reassessments. Homeowners complained about the red tape involved in the reassessment process, as well as the many months they had to wait for their cases to be resolved.

Jacobs said his staff has carried out tax assessments as swiftly as possible and "reduced (property) values when it was proper to do so." Actions have been taken in recent months by the Board of Supervisors to speed up the reassessment process. Jacobs said he also is pushing for tax reforms in the state Legislature.

Holbert and Bales vowed to lower many property tax assessments that they say are inflated. They also said they would work to reduce the backlog of appeals.

In the race for school superintendent, incumbent county Superintendent John F. Dean faces Darrell Opp, chief education officer in the county Department of Education.

The superintendent's responsibilities include approving budgets, providing curriculum support to local school districts and making sure legal mandates are being followed.

If elected for a second term, Dean said he will strive to improve education for all students, pursue legislation allowing "burned-out" teachers and administrators to leave the profession with "dignity," continue to scrutinize budgets and services for more savings and use the county's influence as the third largest in the state to push for widespread reform.

Opp said he would bring new leadership, reinforce programs teaching basic academic skills, stress school safety and strive to revamp county audit procedures to prevent fraud as seen in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where a school administrator was convicted of embezzling funds.

The race for public administrator pits incumbent William A. Baker against businessman Michael K. Stark and vocational guidance counselor Mitchell T. Tracy. The public administrator is in charge of managing the estates of people who died without wills or left disputed wills.

The race for clerk-recorder has centered on Branch's record in office. An investigation by the county affirmative action office concluded that Branch had mismanaged his department and sexually harassed two women in the department. In January, the Board of Supervisors censured him.

Granville and Murphy have criticized Branch's conduct. "In the recorder's office, people are oppressed and morale is low," Granville said. He and Murphy vowed to boost staff morale and improve service if elected.

Leanders said he would work to make the office more efficient.

Branch has denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations against him have been overblown. He said he wants to modernize record-keeping methods and make it easier for the public to obtain copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. "I want to finish what I've started," he said.

In another contentious race, the battle for treasurer-tax collector made national headlines earlier this year when Moorlach raised questions about Citron's investment strategy, which relies heavily on using the county's pool of U.S. Treasury bills and bonds as collateral to borrow short-term at low interest rates. The borrowed funds are then invested in mid-term corporate bonds and securities.

Such investments can yield high returns when interest rates are low. Over the last decade, Citron's strategy has earned an average return of 9.03%, or nearly double the return of comparable investment pools.

But as interest rates have inched up recently, the value of the securities used to borrow money has declined, forcing the county to pay more than $200 million in additional collateral.

Moorlach and his supporters maintain that Citron's strategy is unwise in a climate of rising interest rates. He's called for a more "conservative" approach that relies on the "safest" investment practices.

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