Functionaries like County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg are important assets for the big money types that typically dominate local governments. Their behind the scenes efforts mean that policies get interpreted and enforced (or not) in a manner ensuring that “business as usual” remains Business As Usual.
That’s the reason why Dronenburg was among the earliest (along with Bonnie Dumanis) to get an editorial blessing from UT-San Diego. And they had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the truth to find a reason to support him. Or, as one astute commenter noted, perhaps they just penned the editorial based on a campaign press release.
Let’s face reality here; the position of “County Assessor/Clerk/Recorder” is usually not likely to be of concern to most voters. Today I’ll take a look at why you might want to be concerned as you vote on June 3rd. The bottom line: There’s a lot not to like about Dronenburg.
The county’s assessor-recorder-clerk position sets property values for tax purposes and oversees the recording of properties, births and marriages. It’s the first part of that job description that makes the position politically valuable. It’s that last part that speaks to his true character.
Here is the money quote from the May 9th UT-San Diego endorsement:
The campaign for county assessor/recorder/clerk ought to be voters’ easiest decision on the June 3 ballot. Here’s all you really need to know: Incumbent Ernie Dronenburg is the only one of the four candidates who, at least as of a couple weeks ago, even met the legal requirement that this officeholder be a certified property appraiser…
Oh, Really Now?
I seem to remember how Dronenburg wasn’t a “certified property appraiser” four years ago when the UT endorsed him over “certified property appraiser” David Butler. The truth is that people often get “certified” after assuming the position, as was the case with the incumbent. Newly elected or appointed individuals are granted a Temporary Appraiser’s Certificate by the Board of Equalization prior to taking a formal examination.
Former assessor Greg Smith, who gained fame locally in 2006 via a real estate industry supported campaign to assure the public that there was no housing bubble, never even bothered with certification. Smith served in that position for 25 years, leaving mid-term in 2008 with a $163,00 annual pension and cushy job with best-buddy developer Conrad Prebys.
The UT endorsement for Dronenburg wandered into even murkier waters as it tried to tout his managerial competence, even as it credited him with programs initiated prior to his election.
How This for Leadership?
San Diego ranks worst in the state for mistakes and required corrections to property valuations. And –shades of the current Veterans Administration crisis–we’re second worst with the backlog of assessment appeals. Dronenburg completed 12,182 assessment appeals for FY 2013. Contrast that with the 42,580 appeals completed in 2010 by his predecessor.
To be completely fair, more appeals were being made following the collapse of the real estate market in 2008. Which makes the 14,506 appeals carried over at the end of last year look even worse, given that Dronenburg had the advantages of increased staff (13 positions) and a higher budget ($60,307,881).
There are three people running against Dronenburg and that’s very unusual for a “downballot” office like this one. But the number of challengers speaks volumes to the level of dissatisfaction among both users and employees of the county clerks office.
Customer satisfaction in Dronenburg’s world is measured via paper slips dropped into a counter-top box, sorted and counted by the man himself. It’s little wonder that his “ratings” have surged as election-time nears.
I talked with a phone canvasser who happened to dial up an employee of the county clerks office and couldn’t get off the phone (calls are supposed to be short and to the point) as this office worker poured her heart out about how miserable the workplace was.
Dronenburg has dinged taxpayers for $36,472 in out-of-county travel expenses, more than the total travel expenses racked up by the clerk’s office over the past 25 years.
Back in Time for Business As Usual
To understand the incumbent’s political value (Business As Usual), it’s necessary to travel back in time. (I promise I’ll only hit the high points)
Dronenburg came under Federal scrutiny back in the 1980’s as a director for the Carlsbad-based Seapointe Savings and Loan Assn, which was seized by federal regulators in 1986 and declared insolvent following $21 million in losses via an allegedly illegal commodity futures trading operation.
From the September 4, 1988 Los Angeles Times:
Several months after the S&L’s collapse, a related San Bernardino-based mutual fund, at which Dronenburg was also a director, began to report losses in another risky and complex trading scheme. The once high-flying YES Fund was eventually merged with another fund in an effort to stem its losses and flight of investors, but it soon came to be known in the investment community as the “Titanic fund” because it “sank with nearly all hands on board….”
…Strategic Investment Services of Riverside was the trading adviser to both Seapointe and the YES Fund. Dirk Rose, founder and principal of Strategic, brought Dronenburg onto both boards…
Dronenburg blamed the financial troubles on the “nature of boards of directors that meet only once every three months.” He ultimately was not prosecuted.
He also escaped prosecution by the feds following an investigation into allegations the State Board of Equalization was awarding huge tax breaks to corporations which in turn made donations to the board’s members.
From the October 15, 1988 Los Angeles Times:
Last year, the tax board set the total property assessments for eight major utility firms at $57.8 billion–nearly $2 billion below the recommendations of its staff. The reductions, according to county assessors, meant a loss of about $20 million in tax revenues last year for county and city governments.
The same eight utilities, which include Southern California Gas Co., Southern California Edison Co. and General Telephone Co., had contributed $32,200 to Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg since 1986, records show.
The three votes needed to approve the reductions on the five-member board were cast by Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg.
While on the State Board of Equalization Dronenburg was also involved in two controversial votes; one against a 42 cent increase in wholesale prices for tobacco products other than cigarettes, and another for (later reversed after public criticism) exempting banks from having to pay property taxes on improvements related to ATM installations.
A Failed Proposition
Via the LGBT Weekly:
Since Mayor Sanders came out for marriage equality in 2007, moving openly against the LGBT community has become almost unheard of in San Diego politics. So it was something of a shock when County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg Jr. filed one of the last court challenges against overturning Proposition 8. He withdrew it too late to avoid the spotlight being put on the power of an otherwise obscure office.
I’ll let the Reader tells the rest of the story here:
His decision to challenge the court’s reversal of Prop 8 didn’t win him any popularity contests. Dissenters quickly turned to Facebook, creating a “Recall San Diego County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg” page. That page is still up and running. Currently, 661 [eds. note: It’s now up to 743] people have shown their support for ousting him from office.
His efforts to halt same-sex marriages from taking place were paid for by Prop 8 attorney and lead counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, Charles LiMandri, according to an October 28 “Behested Payment Report” Dronenburg filed with the county.
The form reveals LiMandri donated $11,240 in legal work to Dronenburg and the county to pay for “services required for the drafting and filing of a legal brief with the State Supreme Court.” Dronenburg described the legal work as “filing legal brief raising questions and asking for guidance.”
The Fair Political Practices Commission ended up sending a letter to Dronenburg, advising him of his responsibility to report the in-kind donation from LiMandri. Ooops.
It’s a tangled web they weave over in the anti-gay world.
There are the Wednesday mornings Dronenburg takes off to attend bible classes at the Skyline Church, home-base for national student seminars on promoting “natural marriage” on their campuses. I was unable to confirm a report that the church is promoting Dronenburg as the “only moral choice,” but it certainly sounds like something they’d do.
There’s LiMandri’s role as the general counsel for the National Organization For Marriage. He is also on record as calling same-sex unions “societal suicide” and saying that the “destruction of the concept of gender is perhaps Satan’s greatest accomplishment.”
The point is that the Dronenburg/LiMandri alliance and the lawsuit they filed was much more than the UT wanted it’s readers to believe.
Meet Susan Guinn
This week I met with Susan Guinn, the attorney who is challenging Dronenburg, and came away impressed.
Here’s a little background via the LGBT Weekly:
Local activists started to work against Dronenburg, but needed a candidate who could comprehend and do the job.
Enter Susan Guinn, a member of Equality California’s board of directors, whose resume is eerily perfect for a job few understand. She is a lawyer and business woman who has helped the County recover money and protected businesses and families from inappropriate taxes, fees and exploitation. As a volunteer, she has worked to engage children in building healthy communities and a healthy planet.
Guinn might not be the progressive firebrand some would want, but the job is to implement policies fairly, not make them. Guinn will do that. If you’ve never voted for this office before, it’s well worth a trip down the ballot to replace one of the last men to challenge marriage equality with one of our own.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Susan Guinn. I think they make a strong argument for her competency.
What motivated you to want to run for this office?
This office is critical to the health of San Diego County. It is responsible for setting the taxable value for close to $4 billion dollars in business and residential property throughout San Diego County as well as managing most of our important documents and some licensing, including marriage licenses. It is the economic engine that runs the county and for many businesses and families, their property tax bill represents the largest yearly bill they are required to pay. It matters who is at the helm.
I decided to run for the office because the incumbent doing a terrible job. He is bad for business, bad for families and has abused his elected position to promote his own ideology, rather than following the law.
Tell me about your experience with property valuations, since the UT wanted to make such a big deal out of it.
Due to the nature of my legal practice, I have undertaken hundreds of cases which have ultimately required business or residential property valuations to be completed. For example, I have fought for businesses and families following catastrophic events, such as fires, to make sure they were able to rebuild and get back to work.
Tell me about the use of technology to manage millions of documents.
In litigation representing LA County against big tobacco companies as well as many other large cases, millions of documents are produced and must be managed. I have firsthand experience selecting software, managing staff and the organization and access to millions of documents to streamline the legal process.
Let’s hear some details about the outdated systems I’ve heard about currently being used by the clerk’s office:
Did you know that millions of documents such as deeds, birth certificates and marriage licenses, are only accessible via microfiche? That is a piece of technology that became available in 1906. You have to drive down to the office, physically search through documents, and hope if you can find them that they are legible. And if you can’t find it, the office will gladly help you, for approximately $120. Non-governmental companies have many of these same documents available on-line.
Can you talk specifics about community outreach and educational programs that you would initiate?
It’s time to get the employees out from behind the desk. I want to go into the communities, set-up in schools, gyms, churches, community centers etc., and bring laptops. We will help businesses and families complete their appeals, answer questions, provide information about services, and connect people with other resources in their area. Essentially, “Bring us your paperwork, and let’s get this figured out.” If we can actively go to people who don’t have the resources to appeal or don’t understand the system, and help them save money, they can spend that money on providing for their families.
The offices are so inaccessible to a lot of people, particularly those in underserved communities without reliable transportation. Downtown, Chula Vista, Kearny Mesa, El Cajon, and San Marcos are not exactly centralized locations to a county that can take more than two hours to get across.
So let’s go to them. Let’s get to work getting the people the services their taxes pay for. Let’s also invite other government offices to join us as well as local non-profits who are providing services for the area.
On This Day: 1896 – The first automobile accident occurred in New York City. 1937- In what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre, police opened fire on striking steelworkers at Republic Steel in South Chicago, killing ten and wounding more than 160 1968 – The Beatles began recording the “White Album.”
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to “The Starting Line” and get an email every time a new article in this series is posted!
I read the Daily Fishwrap(s) so you don’t have to… Catch “the Starting Line” Monday thru Friday right here at San Diego Free Press (dot) org. Send your hate mail and ideas to DougPorter@SanDiegoFreePress.Org Check us out on Facebook and Twitter.