After they’ve finished voting for president and for their representatives in Congress and the Legislature, Los Angeles County voters have to pick their way through 11 complicated state ballot measures that require some study. Three are about taxes, two would amend the state Constitution and several would change criminal laws or sentences. Two conflict with each other, and one is a referendum that forces voters to think twice to be sure they’re voting the way they intend to. Then there are still more: There is a county measure dealing with condoms on adult film shoots and a transit measure extending a sales tax, which otherwise would expire in 26 years, for another 30.
Voters’ plates are full. Must they really deal as well with Measure A — a merely “advisory” vote, put on the ballot courtesy of the Board of Supervisors — on the question of whether the county assessor should be an appointed rather than an elected officer?
Even if Measure A prevails, it does nothing. County voters cannot simply opt to have the Board of Supervisors select assessors. Nor can the board take that action by itself, even on the power of an advisory thumbs-up from the electorate. To stop electing county assessors, all California voters must go to the polls and amend the Constitution.
So what should a voter do with Measure A? By voting no, even if the intention is to tell the supervisors not to bother them again with meaningless ballot questions, voters will actually be saying, “No, I don’t want the assessor to be appointed rather than elected.”
That means voters who bother with Measure A must grapple with the substantive question, even though it will have no effect. So what should a voter do?
Still — vote no.
The question arises because of the scandal surrounding Assessor John Noguez, currently on leave pending a criminal probe. At issue in the investigation is whether Noguez gave tax breaks to property owners who funded his campaign, or benefited from agents who promised such breaks, or perhaps encouraged employees to lower appraisals and then pressured the taxpayers to help him politically.
It is true that political corruption is an inherent problem with elected assessors, because they need campaign money when they’re running for office and, once elected, they have the power to reward supporters and punish opponents by setting taxable property values.
Besides, voters know as little about assessor candidates as they do about people running for Superior Court judge. And just as they must be wary of judicial candidates raising campaign money from the very litigants who will bring cases before them, they must be concerned as well about assessor candidates who will be setting the taxable value of property belonging to big campaign donors.
But there would be hazards to having appointed assessors as well, given that they would be beholden to boards of supervisors that want to keep property tax money coming in at a maximum rate so they have more to spend. Historically, taxpayers have demanded that assessors be accountable to them at the ballot box, and not without reason.
Preventing corruption requires more than just swinging the pendulum between electing or appointing particular officials. It’s a matter of checks and balances, incentives and oversight. In Los Angeles County, for better or worse, we’ve long had a kind of unintended, or at least unacknowledged, hybrid system. It has been rare in recent decades to have an open election for assessor, with no incumbent seeking to keep the seat. More often, an assessor resigns or retires in the middle of his term, the Board of Supervisors appoints an interim replacement, and that person runs, and generally wins, as an incumbent. It was quite unusual two years ago when appointed Assessor Rick Auerbach opted not to run for reelection. Noguez, who had served as mayor of Huntington Park, handily outraised, outspent and outpolled his 12 politically inexperienced opponents.
The same kind of thing exists with the two other countywide elective offices. For the first time in half a century, voters are seeing in November a race without an incumbent for L.A. County district attorney. Sheriffs, too, generally have groomed their successors and then stepped aside in the middle of their terms, or else changed their minds while trying to hang on to power. The supervisor or the incumbent in effect nominates the successor, and the voters are asked to ratify the choice.
When the choice is left entirely to voters, they may end up picking someone like Noguez. But appointing officials make plenty of mistakes too. In fact, two of the five supervisors endorsed Noguez, and if another had gotten on board, they might very well have appointed him had they had the option in 2010.
As county residents come to grips with problems in the Sheriff’s Department, some will no doubt argue that the problem should be addressed by making the sheriff appointed rather than elected. But that would solve nothing on its own, unless changes are also made to ensure adequate oversight and accountability.
Likewise, some adjustment in how we select assessors may be warranted, but Measure A doesn’t answer any of the balance-of-power questions raised by the Noguez scandal. Appointing the assessor and removing the voters’ oversight merely trades one set of hazards for another. Measure A is not helpful. Voters can say no to it only once, but they should do so with two objectives in mind: The first is to reject useless, time-consuming and costly advisory measures; the second is to reject the idea of giving up their power to elect assessors without ensuring adequate checks and balances.