Candidates competing to be the next Los Angeles County assessor tangled in their first public debate Sunday over tax policy and the best way to reform the office after a scandal that led to the arrest of the current assessor.
But they were largely united in their criticism of one candidate who was not present: Jeffrey Prang, a West Hollywood councilman and special assistant in the assessor's office, who is so far the front-runner in fundraising and endorsements.
Twelve candidates are running to replace Assessor John Noguez, who is on leave and fighting charges that he had property values reduced for campaign contributors. The seven contenders who attended the Los Angeles forum sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council were Omar Haroon and John Loew, appraisers in the assessor's office; Frank Diaz Jr., supervising appraiser; Brilliant Manyere, an appraiser specialist; John Wong, a real estate businessman and former assessment appeals board member; John Morris, a prosecutor; and Nestor Valencia, a Bell city councilman and healthcare administrator.
The candidates debated whether the job of cleaning up the office would best be undertaken by an outsider or someone familiar with the department.
"A fish rots from its head. The problem is the leadership," said Morris, who argued that the office needs an outsider.
Haroon countered: "Unless you work at the assessor's office, you don't know where the skeletons are.... You can't just remove one person at the top."
The candidates also wrangled over the best way to ensure that property assessments are fair. Diaz and Loew — who changed his middle name to "Lower Taxes" so he could have it printed that way on the ballot — said they would support legislation to increase the exemption for homeowners on their primary residence, and Loew said he would also support eliminating the requirement for small businesses to pay property taxes on business equipment.
Morris said he would not promise lower taxes, which he described as "pandering — and that's a polite word for bribery." But he pledged to protect Proposition 13, the law passed by California voters in 1978 to limit property assessment increases.
Several of the candidates criticized Prang for not showing up and questioned his association with Noguez, who hired Prang in 2012 to handle public relations for the office.
And Loew criticized Prang for his part in a "public drunken groping event" in 1999.
Prang was accused at the time of sexually harassing a West Hollywood city employee while on a delegation to Portland's gay pride parade. Prang publicly apologized for the incident at the time, saying he had had too much to drink and his behavior was "not professional," according to a 1999 Times article on the incident, which Loew read from.
Reached by phone after the forum, Prang said he had been unable to attend because he was being briefed by the West Hollywood city manager about a fatal stabbing in the city. He characterized the 1999 allegations as a "political attack" by a rival on the council at the time, and said he had apologized for "being drunk and representing the city poorly" but that he had not sexually harassed anyone.
Prang said he was not surprised that "the more marginal candidates" were banding together to attack him as the front-runner.
Haroon filed a lawsuit last week to prevent Prang from listing himself as a "deputy assessor" on the ballot. The assessor's office does not use "deputy assessor" as an official job title, but Haroon argued that the term traditionally has been reserved for employees authorized to act on behalf of the assessor as appraisers. Prang is not licensed as an appraiser. If elected assessor, he would have a year to obtain a license.
Prang argued that the term "deputy" is commonly used to refer to high-level employees of elected officials — such as a field deputy or press deputy — and accurately represents his work. Judge James C. Chalfant initially sided with Prang in a tentative ruling but changed his mind after a hearing Friday. Several other candidates running for the office appeared at the hearing to support Haroon's position.
The judge said Prang should be listed instead by his official job title, "special assistant, assessor."