San Bernardino County Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Larry Walker has dropped the treasurer-tax collector portion of his title on his official ballot designation in his run for State Senate.
Walker has joined five others – Democrats Norma Torres, Paul Vincent Avila, and Joanne Gilbert as well as Republicans Paul Leon and Ken Coble – in the race to succeed Gloria Negrete-McLeod as state senator in the 32nd Senate District. McLeod was elected to Congress in November with two years remaining on her term.
Walker, a former Chino mayor and member of the board of supervisors, in 1998 successfully ran for county auditor-controller-recorder. Three years ago, in a reorganization, the county recorder’s function was transferred to the county assessor’s office and the auditor-controller was made the county treasurer-tax collector. In accepting those added duties and title, Walker became the highest paid elected official in the county. He also sustained and overrode criticism that the treasurer’s and auditor/controller’s functions were incompatible ones and his holding both positions created a conflict, akin to a bridge builder also serving as the bridge inspector.
In filling out the paperwork for his state senate candidacy, Walker listed himself as San Bernardino County Auditor-Controller, omitting the Treasurer-Tax Collector portion of his title.
Accordingly, the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters is using only half of his official title in his ballot designation. The Leon and Torres political camps, upon belatedly learning of how Walker would be listed on the ballot, launched protests. They see Walker as deliberately mislabeling himself or misleading voters by that designation. Under one theory, Walker is disassociating himself from the governmental function of tax collection, one which is not particularly popular with taxpayers. Moreover, the title change is also seen as an attempt to deflect the charge that in accepting the potentially incompatible roles of treasurer and auditor, Walker has compromised the financial operations of the county by entering into a circumstance that is rife with conflicts-of-interest.
On behalf of Torres, attorney Sam Crowe, and on behalf of Leon, the San Francisco-based Sutton Law Firm, undertook to file legal challenges of Walker’s ballot designation. At issue is that provision in the California Election Code which provides that a candidate’s ballot designation is to run to no more than three words, with an exception provided for elected officials, who are to use their full officeholder title without limitation or abridgement.
Crowe’s filing, on behalf of the Democratic Party which last month endorsed Torres, was withdrawn because of an alleged filing error. By the time that issue was resolved and before those acting on Leon’s behalf had moved forward with their challenge, the deadline for such a suit had elapsed.
Walker’s abridged ballot designation will now be the one presented to voters for the March 12 election. This led to accusations that San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Michael Scarpello, a Democrat appointed by the board of supervisors and with Walker a fellow county department head, had shown favoritism toward a sitting county official, a charge that has been made previously.
Scarpello this week denied that his office was in any sense responsible for any advantage Walker may have gleaned from his edited ballot designation. He said the special election and its terms and timing are issues beyond his office’s purview.
“The secretary of state is in charge of the ballot designations,” Scarpello said. He offered his view that Torres’ and Leon’s lawyers had elected not to proceed with the legal challenges because “After researching this thoroughly they probably thought they would not be able to prevail. He [Walker] has an extraordinarily long title that would not fit on the ballot. It is not unprecedented for abbreviations to be used.” In this case, Scarpello said, abbreviations for auditor, controller, treasurer and tax collector would potentially be confusing to voters.
“The decision wasn’t our office’s, but if it had been, we probably would have approved the title of auditor controller,” Scarpello said. “I think that if someone believed his title was incorrect they would have challenged it in court. The fact that no one challenged it in court, speaks for itself.”
Scarpello did not contradict the assertion that Walker may benefit from using the title auditor controller, but said, “That is up to the candidate, what they believe is the most descriptive title. Someone can argue that description is misleading, and I am not speaking for Mr. Walker, but I think Mr. Walker’s contention would be that for years he has been recognized as the auditor controller and he would argue that using all of these shorter abbreviations of his full title would be confusing to the voters. I can’t make his arguments for him. This is an interesting dilemma, but that is what the courts are there for, to work this out for our candidates if someone makes that challenge. In this case, no one did.”