Electing responsibly

The probe into the alleged corruption of Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez brings up the question of whether this position responsible for tax collection should be appointed by the Board of Supervisors or elected by voters as is currently the case.

The assessor is in charge of setting the property taxes businesses and homeowners must pay and supervising the primary source of funds for the county’s numerous services. Noguez, who was elected in 2010, is being investigated on suspicion of reducing assessed taxable values by tens of millions under the real value of the multimillion-dollar properties whose owners made major contributions to his election campaign.

Because of this scandal, the idea that the Board of Supervisors should appoint the county assessor, since the job’s main functions are more technical than political, has come up once again. The person appointed wouldn’t be vulnerable to political contributions, as Noguez seemed to have been.

This idea is interesting but hard to implement. Amending the county charter to turn the assessor into an appointee will require approval of a statewide initiative. In the past, voters have wanted to elect the person who oversees county taxes. In 1986, Los Angeles County voters rejected a proposal to have the county appoint people to this position, while in 1998 Californians voted to amend the state constitution to make this an elected position.

On the other hand, having the supervisors appoint the assessor doesn’t guarantee this official will be free of political pressure from those who appoint him or her. There are always many interests at play. It can’t be said either that the election system will unavoidably lead to corruption between candidates and their campaign contributors.

We think the solution isn’t to change the system, but rather to give the Assessor’s Office more visibility, especially at election time. It’s unfortunate that voters aren’t very interested in electing someone to this office. We hope Noguez’s case focuses the public’s attention on this job, and in particular voters’ attention when it comes to electing the next person to this office.