Bringing the drama

Challenger invites controversy into normally bland race for county assessor

Diane Brown

Diane Brown

Photo by Robert Speer

When it comes to an election for county assessor, one candidate—the incumbent—usually has a big advantage. Most voters know little or nothing about the assessor, so their tendency is to vote for the person who’s already sitting at the desk. Naturally, this discourages others from running.

When the current assessor, Diane Brown, was elected in 2014, it was partly because there was no incumbent in the race. Of the five candidates who emerged, Brown came in second in the June 2014 primary with 31 percent of the votes, just behind Supervisor Bill Connelly’s 33 percent. In the November 2014 general-election runoff, Brown, a 30-year veteran of the Assessor’s Office, handily defeated the popular but inexperienced Connelly, garnering 55 percent of the vote despite her opponent’s name recognition.

This year, only two candidates are running, Brown and Chico City Councilman Randall Stone. And Stone, well aware of the uphill climb he faces, appears to be doing whatever he can to stir the political pot and make voters aware of the assessor’s race and its importance.

The Assessor’s Office plays a key role in county government by determining the value of local real properties for tax purposes. It’s budgeted for 40 employees but currently has 39. The assessor’s salary is $128,688 annually.

It would be hard to find two more dissimilar candidates than Randall Stone and Diane Brown. In public, he’s intense, fast-talking and aggressive, while she’s low-key, soft-spoken and easy going. He’s a strong presence in Chico Democratic Party circles, and she’s a longtime Oroville-area Republican (though she says she’s “no fan of our current president”).

Stone has experience in real estate and development and currently owns a boutique financial-planning company, but he has never worked as an appraiser. However, he is one of three arbiters on the county’s Assessment Appeals Board, which exists to adjudicate when the Assessor’s Office and a taxpayer disagree about the value of a property.

Stone also mentions frequently that his father has been the assessor in Santa Clara County for 24 years. “I mentored under the best of the best,” he says.

His campaign has been equal parts positive and negative. On the positive side, he emphasizes his work on the Chico City Council, where according to his campaign literature he “fought to return $4 million to the city General Fund for public safety, roads, and parks.” He also touts his business experience and contends that his up-to-the-minute expertise in using technology has produced “dramatic improvements in customer service” in the city. He demonstrates his technological hipness by getting around town on an electric unicycle.

Randall Stone

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

On the negative side, he has attacked his opponent relentlessly in social media and elsewhere. She’s “unethical,” he argues, because she used her county office to campaign and has shown “flagrant disregard for campaign and finance laws.”

Her idea of a technological upgrade is a new refrigerator in the Paradise branch office, he charges sarcastically.

Turnover in the Assessor’s Office is painfully high, there’s a debilitating lack of training, and—as Stone stated in a Facebook post—taxpayers are unfairly forced “to appeal the Assessor’s baseless appraisal demands.”

He also points to a disagreement between Brown’s office and a property owner named William Vanasek, an attorney who works in the Sutter County Counsel’s Office. Charging that Brown’s office had failed to follow assessment rules, Vanasek appealed his assessment “upon principal (sic)” and, in an online post, expressed his frustration that the assessor “fell short of [her] obligation” to comply with the law.

In response, Brown says simply that her staff did follow the rules and that she stood behind their handling of Vanasek’s case. As with all of her responses to Stone’s charges during the League of Women Voters candidates’ forum, she spoke clearly and to the point, in contrast to his complex verbosity that sometimes became hard to follow.

In the past decade, Brown said, her office had received some 5,300 appeals. Most—85 percent—were handled-in house; 5 percent were no-shows; and 10 percent moved on to the appeals board and final resolution. The suggestion that the Assessor’s Office wasn’t following the rules fails to account for this level of efficiency and success.

She agrees with Stone that more staff training is needed and says she is instituting it as funding becomes available. Stone charges that she’s not being proactive and searching out grants to pay for training.

On the tech front, her office is switching from an AudoCAD drafting system to a geographic information system (GIS) that will enable a “more linear” and efficient method for recording parcel data.

And the refrigerator? Yes, she put a fridge in the Paradise office. Employees there needed a break room. She also put in a table and chairs and utensils. And she paid for it all herself.

Brown knows she has the advantage of incumbency and is running a low-key campaign, eschewing outside contributions and self-financing instead. As of April 26, she reported lending herself $6,852 and spending $1,852, mostly on yard signs. Stone reports receiving $3,170 in contributions and $2,300 in loans to himself, for a total of $5,523.