January 27, 2009 - Board, not voters, might pick next clerk - Supervisors consider making recorder’s post appointed one
Paper: Ventura County Star (CA)
Title: Board, not voters, might pick next clerk - Supervisors consider making recorder’s post appointed one
Date: January 27, 2009
Author: Tony Biasotti ; tbiasotti@ VenturaCountyStar.com
Phil Schmit, the Ventura County clerk-recorder who retired this month, had to answer to a few hundred thousand voters. His successor might one day have only five bosses.
With the post technically vacant - Schmit’s top assistant is now the acting clerk-recorder - the Ventura County Board of Supervisors plans to take a close look at whether the position should continue to be an elected one.
If supervisors decide they should appoint the clerk-recorder instead, the change would have to be approved by voters. It would go on the ballot in 2010, unless a special election is held before then.
The Board of Supervisors will also consider some other ways to revamp the office, said County Executive Officer Marty Robinson. There are three basic functions - clerk, recorder and registrar of voters - and they could be separated or assigned to other departments. For example, Santa Barbara County combines all of those functions with its assessor’s office, creating a clerk-recorder-assessor hybrid.
The board will also decide whether to appoint someone as Schmit’s permanent successor or leave Jim Becker in his post as acting clerk-recorder until the 2010 election. Since Becker can fill the position indefinitely, the board is in no hurry to make any decisions, Robinson said.
“It’s possible some of the structures we have are antiquated,” Robinson said. “This is an opportunity to just look at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
The board will do a similar review when vacancies pop up in other elected offices, she said.
Under state law, only the supervisors, sheriff, district attorney and assessor have to be elected. The other county elected offices - auditor-controller, tax collector and clerk-recorder - could be switched to appointed offices, as long as voters approve.
Potential power struggle
Any move by the supervisors to turn elected offices into appointed ones will probably meet with opposition from the current elected officials. Schmit has already come out against making his old job an appointed office, and some of his former colleagues agree.
“I’ve got some pretty strong feelings on this issue,” County Tax Collector Larry Matheney said. “There is one thing that is overriding all of this, and that is the level of service the public gets from a department. As an elected official, I know my continuing in office is in huge part going to be based on whether I am providing public service that is not just passable, but is as good as it can be.”
“Being elected by the public has been good,” County Assessor Dan Goodwin said. “It creates independence in the leadership of the office, and that’s why some counties would like to reduce the number of elected officials. They want control, they want to reduce that independence.”
Supervisor Steve Bennett said that’s not the case in Ventura County.
“I don’t have a bias one way or another on this,” he said. “I have an interest in looking at all of our options. Just taking a look at that is not a power grab. ... The motivation will be, what’s going to, in the long run, give the citizens of Ventura County the best representation and the best service?”
The offices of Public Administrator and Public Guardian used to be overseen by Matheney, an elected official. But after it was revealed that some of his employees stole from the elderly and disabled people whose assets they were overseeing, the Board of Supervisors moved the two offices to the Human Services Agency, which is run by an appointed official answerable to the board.
Robinson disputes the idea that an elected official is more accountable to the public than an elected one. She points to the county’s move in 2002 to take the clerk of the Board of Supervisors out of the Clerk-Recorder’s Office and put clerks under the auspices of the county executive.
Since then, the clerk of the board has started webcasting all board meetings and put a searchable archive of board agendas and other county documents online.
“We were really able to raise the accountability and openness of that office,” she said.
Election conflicts abound
The job that puts the clerk-recorder into the public eye most often is running elections. That task is fraught with potential conflicts of interest, said Joe Holland, Santa Barbara County’s elected clerk-recorder-assessor. But, he said, there’s no definitive answer as to whether an elected or appointed clerk is more susceptible to political pressure.
“If I’m appointed, I’m obviously taking direction from the Board of Supervisors, and I’d be managing their elections when they’re up for re-election, so there’s a potential conflict there,” Holland said. “On the other hand, if I’m elected, I’m managing my own election, so there’s a potential conflict there, too.”
Becker, too, said he’s agnostic on whether the clerk-recorder should be elected or appointed. Most clerks are elected, but large counties, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, have appointed election chiefs.
“I like the job I’m doing, and I’d like to keep doing it, whether it’s appointed or I have to run for election,” the acting clerk-recorder said.
Campaigns for clerk-recorder, tax collector, assessor and auditor-controller are typically low-key and low-budget, at least when compared to the campaigns for supervisor, sheriff and district attorney.
There’s another difference: The lower-profile positions tend to involve more administrative and technical work than policy-making, and they often require specialized technical knowledge.
Taken together, those factors can make it hard for voters to make an informed decision, Goodwin said.
“Democracy’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing going,” he said. “The voters aren’t always going to get the best possible person, but they’re usually going to pick someone who’s capable of doing the job.”
Record Number: 219305
Copyright, 2009, Ventura County Star