By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
Jeffrey Prang, the West Hollywood city council member attempting to replace disgraced County Assessor John Noguez in November’s General Election, kicked off his campaign in late July with a show of force from the Democratic establishment.
The event, held on the sunny (hot) back lawn of a Hancock Park Estate, drew the big names of the Los Angeles city and county political class, running from Congress members to city council members to political consultants, aides and donors.
Mr. Prang won the primary election for that seat, but because he received only a small percentage of the vote, must face an opponent in a run-off.
John Morris, a deputy district attorney, faces Mr. Prang, saying he will “clean up” a corrupt Assessor’s office.
Elections for Assessor are normally quiet (think whispered) election campaigns, but this year the issue of integrity – the honesty of the assessors – has become a volatile issue for the candidates.
In 2012, law enforcement officials arrested Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez as a result of a year-long influence-peddling investigation. Authorities said the charges include bribery and corruption.
Mr. Noguez has repeatedly denied wrong doing in the probe that has roiled the Assessor’s office, which in entrusted with determining property taxes on the more than two million homes and businesses in the largest county in the country.
Mr. Noguez, a career assessor, won in an election the top assessor’s job in 2010, for which he raised a staggering $1 million – his opponent raised a mere $40,000 for the countywide post.
Officials accuse of Mr. Noguez conspiring to lower property values for individuals who in turn gave large campaign contributions to Mr. Noguez’s campaign.
That is what Mr. Morris says he will clean up, but Mr. Prang counters there is no need now – the office is running as it should again.
Part of what makes the election worrying from Mr. Prang’s perspective is how his pre-scandal association with John Noguez will appear to low-information voters.
However, his opponent wants to make the election about Mr. Noguez’s problems, saying, “The context of this election is framed by John Noguez, and I think voters will look for someone with no connection to Noguez.”
He hopes that people will see his DA badge as a reason to vote for him.
On his web site, Mr. Morris lists his outsider status and his past prosecuting white-collar crimes as former head of the district attorney’s healthcare fraud division will help him in the campaign.
He has also taken a strong stance on Proposition 13 and politician’s attempts to make adjustments so that commercial landowners pick up their fair share. When Prop 13 was introduced, 40 percent of taxes came from residents and 60 percent from commercial interests. That formula has reversed.
The Tax Assessor has no legislative authority, and could do nothing at all to effect change or prevent one from happening; the assessor assesses.
John Noguez and Mr. Prang worked at the Assessor’s office decades ago, developing an acquaintance and off and on friendship, according to Mr. Prang.
Decades later, an unemployed Mr. Prang – who had worked in a variety of public service/political jobs as chief aide or assistant to countywide elected officials such as the Sheriff while developing a reputation for good judgment and discretion – returned to work at the Assessor’s office.
He told WeHo News afterward that “the last thing he would do is seek employment if I thought there was a criminal investigation on the horizon.”
When the seriousness of the investigation into Mr. Noguez became known to him (he had thought it a campaign accusation), he recalled looking for work elsewhere.
“I didn’t want to be associated with this department and the criminal investigation,” he said. “It became clear to me that this was a big issue and John should extricate himself from it. Even though he deserves his day in court, the charges against him are so severe and so extensive that he really should have resigned.”
Still, Mr. Noguez refused.
That was when “I told him that his position was untenable,” said Mr. Prang, “and suggested a way to get him out of the office and prevent him from being a distraction,” and kicked off negotiations between County Board of Supervisors president Zev Yaroslavsky, Mr. Noguez and himself that brought about an agreement to appoint a deputy assessor to that then-vacant post and allow Mr. Noguez to take a leave of absence from his position.
Mr. Noguez spent nearly five months imprisoned until bailed out by a friend.
Mr. Prang stayed on at the Assessor’s office by invitation of the Interim Assessors appointed by the County Board of Supervisors. His tenure has been lauded and he has been given responsibility over digitizing the mountainous filing system.
More than that, though, he has been given credit from every high ranking political official in the area for his smoothing over the Noguez scandal as well as it could be done.
Mr. Noguez refused to quit, and the Board had no way to remove an elected official, so Mr. Prang convinced him that it would be best for the office and for his own defense if he ceased to come into the office and delegated decision making in his absence, essentially going into exile while still holding the position.
Not only has his ability to smooth the waters brought praise from the County Board of Supervisors, but recently former-Governor Davis said, “I am proud to endorse Jeffrey Prang for Los Angeles County Assessor. As a former, long-time resident of West Hollywood, I know Jeff to be a very smart, effective and creative leader who helped make West Hollywood one of California’s most successfully managed cities.
“His experience as a reformer, his competence as an administrator, and his unquestionable integrity are just what is needed in the Assessor’s Office at this critical point in time.”
Other endorsements include support from scores of elected officials, including State Controller John Chiang, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, City Attorney Mike Feuer, City Controller Ron Galperin, as well as the Mexican America Bar Association PAC and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
The kick-off event showed Mr. Prang at his best, humble and competent, bathed in the support of politicians with wide name recognition honoring his time in politics.
Mr. Morris has served in a wide-range of management and administrative positions for thirteen years.
His campaign style is aggressive and scatter shot. And a little disingenuous – a little cheesy – for campaigning for something over which the Assessor has literally no say – Proposition 13 and the recent moves to expand its reach to commercial properties.
His site says, “Protecting Proposition 13 – While the County Assessor’s office does not hold power over tax legislation, John believes Proposition 13 is tax payers’ best defense against increased property taxes and will advocate for its protection.”
The latest fundraising figures reflect only the primary season, but show a clear advantage by Mr. Prang.