By Mark Gutglueck
Intrigues known and unknown and the planned and unplanned events relating to the seamy underbelly of governance in San Bernardino County involving deals that are cut to benefit insiders and members of the region’s political establishment loomed into public focus this week as the board of supervisors prepared to take calculated and belated action in the aftermath of Assessor Bob Dutton’s death last month.
At stake in what the board of supervisors is to do are tens of millions of dollars’ worth of their political supporters’ capital and assets in the short term, hundreds of millions of their political donors’ dollars in the midterm and more than a billion dollars’ worth of land, buildings, equipment, investments and holdings controlled by their political benefactors in the long term.
On display for those quick-eyed and discerning enough to see it is the degree to which supervisors Curt Hagman, Paul Cook, Dawn Rowe and Janice Rutherford – the controlling majority of the board – have used in the past and are looking forward toward continuing to utilize their political ties to the assessor to fatten their electioneering accounts along with how feckless and overmatched Supervisor Joe Baca Jr. is in preventing that from occurring.
A degree of mystery surrounds who knew what and when they came to know it in relation to Dutton’s appointment with death, a fate that was foreordained when he developed prostate cancer more than four years ago and then either ignored the symptoms or did not recognize them until the cancer had spread. Last year, the cancer had metastasized his bones, a virtual death sentence. There is no question that Dutton knew he was doomed; According to a reliable source, on three separate occasions in December, paramedics had to be summoned to his residence because his physical condition had deteriorated to the point that he collapsed.
Dutton was due to stand for reelection this year. Despite his recognition that he stood virtually no chance of serving out the term to which the successful candidate for assessor would be elected to this year, Dutton chose to seek to remain in office. His string of successful candidacies for public office going back more than two decades, the name recognition and power of incumbency that came with being the sitting assessor, his personal and family wealth and his not insubstantial political war chest warded off any challengers, so that when he filed for reelection in February, no opponents surfaced to run against him. He was the only candidate for the office of assessor, which in San Bernadino County combines with it the offices of county recorder and county clerk, on the June 7 ballot. He was elected with 200,752 voter endorsements, 100 percent of the vote.
Dutton, who was elected to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council in 2000, successfully vied for the California Assembly in 2002 and then moved up to the California State Senate in 2004. In 2012, he was termed out of that office after two years of serving as the Republican Senate Leader. He was elected county assessor in 2014 and reelected without opposition in 2018.
The son of Ted Dutton, one of the most successful and wealthiest businessman, land speculators and investors in San Bernardino County, Bob Dutton as a relatively young man in the 1980s had established himself and made his fortune by virtue of his business partnership with his father in speculating in and developing real estate in Rancho Cucamonga, where before he was elected to the city council in 2000, he had been president of the Rancho Cucamonga Chamber of Commerce.
In San Bernardino County, as in virtually all other 57 counties in California, the assessor is the leading taxing authority. As such, given that San Bernardino County, at 20,105 square miles, is the largest county in the lower 48 states with a land area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined, assessor is one of the most powerful governmental positions in the jurisdiction. Not only does the assessor determine the property tax assessments that landowners must pay annually on their real estate holdings, his office also makes a determination on the value and thus the taxes to be paid on a host of assets including buildings, equipment, machinery, boats and the like. The taxes assessed against a business and its assets such as those involved in manufacturing or processing or packaging or distributing can have a direct influence on whether that business is profitable or not, and if it is profitable, just how profitable. The assessor and his minions have discretion and wide latitude in assessing such assets. If for example, the building, equipment and inventory of a foundry or factory is determined to be worth $7 million, the taxes to be paid in that regard are half what that manufacturing concern would pay if the building, equipment and inventory of that foundry or factory is ascertained to be worth $14 million. In San Bernardino County, large business owners, ones in good standing with the region’s politicians and its governmental structure, are expected to, and routinely do, make a show of appreciation toward the politicians who oversee that governmental structure. And if a business owner just had his holdings assessed in such a way that he saw a savings of, say, $500,000 on the amount of taxes he would have had to pay if his holdings had been determined to have a much higher value, he can often be counted upon to peel off $1,000 here and there as donations to a couple of different politicians’ campaign funds and maybe $2,000 once or twice or three times for a few other politicians’ electioneering accounts and maybe $5,000 or $10,000 to another elected official or two so that they might remain in office and keep up the good work they are engaged in by making sure government is run smoothly and well.
Similarly, real estate speculators, those engaged in the development of real estate or those simply investing in property have an interest in ensuring that their nonproductive holdings are assessed at the lowest possible value. They, too, can be counted upon to make donations to the assessor and his political allies, so to stay on their good sides and keep those with good ideas and the right attitude in office, to make sure that the good ol’ boys that make up the establishment can keep on in the way they always have. Bob Dutton fit right in with that establishment. Indeed, throughout the time he was investing in real estate and engaged in speculation and developing property in Rancho Cucamonga in the 1980s and 1990s and while he was a member of the Assembly and then a member of the California State Senate and while he was San Bernardino County assessor, he not only was a part of that establishment but embodied it.
Just as Dutton could be counted upon to protect the financial interests of those who had gained entrée into San Bernardino County’s political and business establishment, it was equally true that he was willing to use his tax assessing authority as a cudgel against those who were in the opposite or dissident political camp. An examination of both the tax assessments and the personages involved in protests of assessments levied by his office in the form of those appealed to the county’s assessment appeals board and the general trend of the outcomes of those cases suggests that those who fall within the category of the political establishment in San Bernardino County were given far more favorable treatment by the assessor’s office under Dutton than those who were not members of the political establishment.
The Sentinel was not aware that Dutton was afflicted with cancer until after his death. There were, nevertheless, reports and indications that something was amiss with him beginning in the late summer/early fall of 2021. As an elected official, one who is directly answerable through the democratic process to his constituents, the assessor has traditionally at least to a degree been the face of the office he heads and was accessible up to a point to at least potentially respond to concerns about the way in which the assessor’s office functions and is run, to address concerns and redress what some residents might see as shortcomings. Beginning at some point in 2021, Dutton was not seen around his usual haunts in the assessor’s office at 222 West Hospitality Lane or any of the satellite assessor’s offices around the county. Indeed, the Sentinel’s repeated efforts to contact him during that time were unsuccessful. Many observed that something of a Praetorian guard had been erected around him which no outsiders could breach. Not only was Dutton unavailable at his office, he could not be reached by phone either. One account, perhaps apocryphal, was that last year an FBI agent had tried to contact him and was unable to locate him at any county office or where he resided and could not get him on the phone.
A report began to circulate that he was in the initial or perhaps middle stage of dementia, and had accordingly been decommissioned by those closest to him, who were seeking to protect him. All external signs were that he was virtually 100 percent disengaged from the assessor’s function, from the recorder’s function and from the county clerk’s function.
In the same timeframe, a county property owner who was in a dispute with the assessor’s office over the assessment of what was a recently-purchased property made numerous attempts to resolve the issue by seeking to deal directly with Dutton, but at the time recounted that he could not reach him directly or even indirectly. Ultimately, the property owner’s dispute was resolved in his favor by the appeals assessment board.
Despite the Sentinel not having known that Dutton last year and earlier this year was engaged in what would ultimately prove to be a losing battle with cancer, it is now known that there were those around him who were aware of his condition.
According to one of his acquaintances, a one-time local and state officeholder who had irregular but relatively frequent interaction with Dutton, he learned in a conversation with Dutton last year that he was waging a battle against prostate cancer and that it had progressed to the point that it had moved into his skeletal system.
This gives rise to questions as whether Dutton had informed anyone else, in particular members of the board of supervisors, about his condition.
It is worth noting that in 2019, a report circulated to the effect that a deal had been reached between Rutherford, the supervisor in the Second District, and Dutton by which Rutherford was to run for assessor this year while Dutton was to simultaneously run for Second District supervisor. Rutherford was first elected to the board of supervisors in 2010, reelected in 2014 and 2018 and was and is due to be termed out of office under San Bernardino County’s three-term limit for supervisors in December of this year. According to the 2019 report, Dutton would seek the Second District supervisor’s post with Rutherford’s endorsement and she would run for assessor with Dutton’s support.
It is also noteworthy that on September 12, 2018, Josie Gonzales, who was then on the board of supervisors representing the Fifth District and was herself to be termed out of that office in December 2020, filed a statement of organization of a recipient committee titled “Josie Gonzales for Supervisor 2022.” By December 31, 2021, roughly a month-and-a-half before the filing period for county offices up for election in 2022 opened, Gonzales had $495,147.83 in that campaign account.
Neither Gonzales nor Rutherford filed to run for assessor/recorder/county clerk during the February 14 to March 11, 2022 filing period, leaving the field to Dutton.
While it is not absolutely probative, there is evidence to suggest that members of the board of supervisors – in particular those that share a significant portion of the same donor base that backed Dutton in his various campaigns for elected office, namely Hagman, Cook, Rowe and to a lesser extent Rutherford – knew that Dutton was dying and was not likely to serve out the term to which he was elected in June. It appears that there may have been an understanding that Dutton would run for reelection without interference in June, obtain reelection, whereupon the board majority as it is to be composed and including Hagman, Cook and Rowe, would be able to select his replacement. Based upon the logic of that troika’s own political interest, the ideal replacement would be someone who, like Dutton, would respect the financial interests of the field of political donors they are reliant upon.
What no one anticipated was the rapidity of Dutton’s final decline. Whereas it was assumed that Dutton would serve out the entirety of the term to which he was elected without opposition 2018 ending in January and that he would then be sworn in to begin serving the term to which he was elected on June 7 2022, a mere month and 16 days after he was reelected and more than five months before his current term elapsed and before he was to begin serving the term to which he had been elected, on July 23, 2022, he succumbed.
At that point, the board of supervisors, had it acted with alacrity, could have solicited candidates for assessor, subjected them to an application process and put those meeting the qualifications for candidacy on the November 8 general election ballot by a deadline set for some time this month to meet the county registrar of voters’ deadline to field those candidates for inclusion on this year’s general election ballot and voter pamphlet, giving the county’s voters an opportunity to elect their assessor for the term running from January 2023 to January 2025. Instead, the board of supervisors tarried, and did not get around to recruiting those interested in serving in the position until last week and then meeting to discuss its options this week. That temporizing prevented the county from including the election for assessor/recorder/county clerk on the November 8 ballot. Holding an election for assessor, which must be conducted countywide, in conjunction with an existing election would save the county an estimated $3 million over the cost of carrying out that voting in a specially-called election.
The board solicited applications that were due by August 18 from individuals willing to serve in the position through the expiration of the term that Dutton was elected to in November 2018, running through January 3, 2023. That fetched responses from five people willing to replace him and claim the job of assessor/recorder/county clerk, which pays a monthly salary of $23,135.26 along with monthly perquisites, pay add-ons and benefits of $10,385.88, translating into an annual salary of $277,623.12 plus perquisites, add-ons and benefits of $124,630.53 for a total yearly compensation of $402,253.65.
The applicants included Dutton’s widow; two former members of the board of supervisors, including one who served an even longer stint as the county’s auditor and controller; and two of Dutton’s staff members who have been closely involved in the assessment process.
At its meeting on Tuesday, August 23, the board of supervisors was officially presented with the list of those five and their applications.
One of those is Andrea Dutton, who was married to Dutton for more than 30 years. She was a nurse with expertise in the field of radiology. She has taken courses in real estate but does not possess an appraiser certificate issued by the California State Board of Equalization, a requisite that must be fulfilled within one year of an assessor taking office. She committed to obtaining that license within one month of her appointment. She indicated she would not seek to remain in the assessor/recorder/county clerk post beyond January 3, 2023.
Josie Gonzales, who was a member of the Fontana City Council and served as Fifth District San Bernardino County supervisor from 2004 until 2020, contemplated and prepared for a run for assessor earlier this year by opening up and registering a campaign account for the post but did not run against Dutton, has also applied for appointment as assessor. Gonzales does not have an appraiser certificate issued by the California State Board of Equalization but stated in her application, “I will acquire a temporary appraiser’s certificate from the State Board of Equalization no later than 30 days after taking office and become permanently certified in one year.” Gonzales indicated she is interested not only in serving as assessor/recorder/county clerk between now and January but during the duration of the follow-on term to which Dutton was elected in June, including running in the special election for the post to be held in November 2024.
Larry Walker, an attorney who had been a Chino City Council member and mayor, was elected to the board of supervisors representing the Fourth District in 1986 and reelected to that post in 1990 and 1994. In 1998 he was elected to the position of county auditor-controller/recorder/county clerk. In 2010, a reorganization merged the auditor-controller’s function with that of the county treasurer/tax collector and moved the recorder and county clerk functions to the assessor’s office. Walker assumed the role of and was elected auditor-controller/treasurer/tax collector that year and was reelected to that position in 2014. Walker resigned as auditor-controller/treasurer/tax collector in 2016. He does not hold an appraiser’s certificate from the State Board of Equalization, but stated in his application, “I attended the Board of Equalization class in 2007, and was told by the instructor I passed the final exam with a high score. Unfortunately, the BOE’s policy was to issue certificates only to county assessors and their staff, and I was auditor-controller/recorder [and county clerk] at the time. However, that previous success is substantial evidence of my ability to obtain the necessary certificate at the earliest possible date.”
In his application, Walker indicated he is interested in serving out the rest of Dutton’s second term, then remaining in position as assessor/recorder/county clerk into what was to be the first two years of Dutton’s third term and running to retain the position for the last two years of the term to which Dutton was recently elected when that special election is held in 2024.
Chris Wilhite, who operated the Wilhite Appraisal Service from February 1986 until May of 1990 and the Chris Wilhite Appraisal Service from May of 1990 until July of 2000, was hired in July of 2000 to work in the assessor’s office, where he initially did basic appraisals in the Ontario office. He then handled second and third level and complex appraisals out of the San Bernardino office, later served as the supervising district appraiser overseeing assessor’s office operation in Barstow, Needles and Hesperia and most recently has worked in the capacity of the principal appraiser in charge of training and standards.
“Serving the assessor/recorder/county clerk’s office from Trona to Yucaipa and Needles to Chino Hills, I have appraised in those areas and most cities and communities in-between,” said Wilhite, the assistant assessor for the county who has been described as Dutton’s second-in-command.
“As the current assistant assessor and as Senator Dutton’s longest serving assistant, I am grateful of the trust and confidence that he had placed in me,” he wrote. “It would be an honor to complete his term and continue his work of service to the public, to build upon our functional modernization plan, and further the support of our staff and the community. Having over 36 years of appraisal and real estate-related experience in the private sector as a business owner and the most recent 22 years of public service with the assessor/recorder in lead appraiser, supervisor and management roles, I am well qualified to lead.”
Wilhite said his elevation to the assessor’s post would ensure a “retention of institutional knowledge.”
Wilhite provided a copy of his advanced certified property tax appraiser certificate, No. 8784, awarded to him by the California State Board of Equalization.
Wilhite said he was seeking appointment to complete Dutton’s current term as well as the first half of the term to which Dutton was elected in June. Wilhite said he did not anticipate running to remain as assessor past January 2025 in the special election to be held for that purpose in November 2024.
Bradley Snowball began with the county in 1995 as a fiscal clerk with the county GAIN Program, a welfare-to-work initiative that is part of the State of California’s welfare reform program. In 1997 he transitioned into an auditor-appraiser position with the assessor’s office, remaining in that capacity until 2012. Since 2012, he has been a supervising auditor-appraiser, in which capacity, he stated, he “supervise[s] a staff of five auditor-appraisers, one appraisal technician and one office assistant, assign[s] and review[s] compliance audit workloads, write[s] and administers work performance evaluations, handle[s] disciplinary and work performance issues, interview[s] and hire[s] assessor business property staff [and] provide[s] assessment training, develop[s] procedures and provide[s] guidelines for appraisal and support staff.”
Snowbell provided the number, 8495, of his Advanced Certified Property Tax Appraiser certificate awarded to him by the California State Board of Equalization.
Snowbell was applying for appointment to finish the term as assessor to which Dutton was elected in 2018 and to serve out the first two years of the term to which he was elected in June. He did not indicate any intention to run for assessor in the special election the county has scheduled for 2024 to select someone to serve in that capacity from January 2025 until January 2027, the last two years of the term Dutton was elected to in June.
Having neglected to act quickly enough to place a special election for assessor on the November 8 ballot, county officials led by the board of supervisors made clear to the public this week that the intent moving forward is to interview Andrea Dutton, Walker, Gonzales, Wilhite and Snowbell during the board’s upcoming September 13 meeting and make an appointment of one of those five to serve as assessor up until midnight on January 3, 2023. Later this year, most likely in November, the supervisors will consider Walker, Gonzales, Wilhite, Snowbell and anyone else deemed qualified who shows an interest in applying and select that person to replace Dutton for the first two years of what would have been his next term, which is to start on January 4. The board further intends to schedule a special election that will correspond with the balloting to be conducted in conjunction with the November 2024 Presidential election to select someone to serve the last two years of the term to which Dutton was elected in June.
The rationale for both county staff and the county board of supervisors doing it this way is that, having missed the deadline[s] for putting a special election for assessor on the November 8 ballot, to conduct a special and therefore necessarily stand-alone countywide election to select an assessor would prove very costly, by most calculations approaching or exceeding $3 million. To avoid this cost, the county will make the dual appointments.
A real question exists as to whether the board of supervisors has the authority to do all that it has declared an intention to do.
The board is within its discretionary power to appoint a replacement/successor for someone in a constitutional position who has vacated that position during an ongoing term, either by removal, resignation or, as in this case, death. The board’s authority to replace an absent duly-elected official does not translate into the power to bypass the citizenry it represents and use that power of replacement to substitute an appointment for an election. An important consideration is that Dutton was sworn in, in January 2019, to serve as assessor from January 2019 to January 2023, the term he was elected to, by default when no ran against him, in 2018. Even though in June of this year he was elected to serve the term running from January 2023 to January 2027, he had not been sworn in to serve in that capacity. Thus, the board, by selecting someone to serve as assessor from January 2023 to January 2025, will be electing that individual to the office rather than appointing Dutton’s replacement, since he or she will not have been in place to be replaced.
For an individual to serve in the office of assessor in the term that will begin on January 4, 2023 requires a fulfillment of the election that took place in June, which cannot take place since Dutton will not be available to serve, or another election. The board of supervisors, fully understanding that the entire matter involves an arcane area of the law and an extremely rare circumstance, is calculating that no one will come forward to contest that the solution it is applying – an appointment for the first two years of the assessor’s 2023-to-2027 term and an election for the last two years of the assessor’s 2023-to-2027 term – will cure its error of not having acted rapidly in the aftermath of Dutton’s death to call for a special election to be held in conjunction with the countywide balloting on November 8. What the board is in the midst of doing is posing issues that are subject to challenge. The forum for making such a challenge would be a quo warranto proceeding in which the California Attorney General would be called upon to determine under what authority the appointee the board of supervisors comes up with can assume or hold the office of assessor/recorder/county clerk. The county in the face of such a challenge would no doubt assert that given the timing of Dutton’s death and the expense of conducting a stand-alone countywide election the county is acting in a fiscally responsible manner by making the two-year appointment and, further, that preventing the squandering of some $3 million in taxpayer dollars that would be involved in staging such an election trumps whatever constitutional and election code principles involved in ensuring that San Bernardino County’s residents’ rights to elect the individual entrusted with ascertaining the proper and appropriate tax rates to be applied to their properties individually and collectively. Reputable legal authorities contacted by the Sentinel indicated that the county would not be likely to prevail in the face of such a challenge, particularly since the board of supervisors had an opportunity in the two weeks after Dutton’s death to arrange to put a special election for assessor on the November 8 ballot at what would have been minimal cost.
One question now is: Will someone come forward to mount that challenge and seek a quo warranto proceeding?
Other questions are: Whom – among Andrea Dutton, Walker, Gonzales, Wilhite and Snowball – will the board appoint? and Will that appointee be one and the same as the person selected to serve from January 2023 to January 2025?
Over the last half century, San Bernardino County history is replete with examples of efforts, some of them successful, to install in the assessor’s office individuals willing to use that office’s authority to selectively provide tax breaks to the wealthy and more powerful residents of the county and elements of the business and investment community willing to support and advance the county’s political class.
Robert Herbin, who began as a field appraiser in the assessor’s Victorville office in 1951, steadily advanced in the office, becoming assistant chief appraiser in 1959 and chief appraiser in 1968. In 1974, he ran successfully for the top spot in the office when John Bevis, who had been assessor since 1959, retired. Herbin’s virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the office and dedication to a formalistic and standardized set of procedures showing no bias or favoritism resulted in what is generally considered to be the apex of the office’s function throughout the county’s 169-year history. In 1978, after a single term as assessor, Herbin was challenged by Robert Gordon “Gordie” Young, a transplanted Canadian and liquor store owner from Fontana who had been bitten by the political bug while he was working as an accountant/auditor at Kaiser Steel and Kaiser Hospital. Young served three-and-a-half years on the Fontana School Board and two terms on the Fontana City Council from 1968 to 1976. The far more politically savvy Young prevailed in the 1978 race and remained in office for four terms, from 1979 until 1995, during which time the assessor’s office burnished its reputation for showing favoritism to county politicians and those aligned with them, applying one set of assessment standards for the political elite and members of the establishment which resulted in lower tax rates for them and applying a different taxing yardstick in essence to more than 98 percent of the county’s property owners, residents and businesses.
Bill Postmus, another politician who had first been elected to the county board of supervisors representing the First District in 2000 and was reelected to that post in 2004, the same year he was elevated to the position of chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, ran for county assessor against incumbent Don Williamson in 2006. Expending more than $3 million in that electioneering effort in what to this day remains the most expensive political campaign in San Bernardino County history, Postmus prevailed in that race. Once in the assessor’s position, he immediately moved to exploit the power and influence of the office, creating a second assistant assessor’s position where previously there had been only one and hiring 11 of his associates, none of whom had any expertise or previous experience in real estate, appraising or levying taxes, into the office’s 13 highest-paying positions. From those 11 positions, those Postmus hired engaged themselves not in work relating to the assessor’s office’s function but in political and electioneering activity on behalf of the Republican Party, political issues and candidates for local and statewide office favored by Postmus. Moreover, Postmus used his discretionary power to set taxing rates on the county’s residents and business operations to lower the assessments of those demonstrating a willingness to pony up money to support Postmus in his future political endeavors by endowing his campaign fund and/or the political action committees he controlled with donations or otherwise supporting candidates and political issues he favored. Those who contributed to his electioneering fund or that of his allies Brad Mitzelfelt, Paul Biane, Tad Honeycutt and Anthony Adams were given a break on the taxes they paid. Those who did not paid the going rate.
In 2009, after the degree to which Postmus and those he had put into place in the assessor’s office were utilizing public facilities, assets and the assessor’s office’s authority for partisan political purposes became widespread public knowledge, Postmus was forced to resign as assessor and charged with six felony counts of misuse of his elected office. He was convicted on all six of those counts, along with eight other felony political corruption charges, in 2011. Four of the political operatives inexperienced in assessor’s office operations Postmus had hired into lucrative posts within the assessor’s office were indicted or criminally charged; ultimately three of those were convicted.
Against all odds, San Bernardino County remains an island of Republicanism in a sea of Democrats.
Virtually every statewide office from governor to insurance commissioner is held by a Democrat and the Democrats have supermajorities in both the Assembly and State Senate. Both U.S. Senators from California are Democrats. In the California Congressional Delegation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 42 to 11. Conversely, in San Bernardino County, Republican officeholders have a decided edge over their Democratic counterparts. In 15 of the county’s 22 city councils and on both of the county’s incorporated town councils, Republicans outnumber Democrats. On the county board of supervisors, four of five members are Republicans.
Of the county’s seven members of the Assembly, three are Republicans, three are Democrats and one is a former Republican who now identifies as an independent. In the California Senate, the four seats in the state’s upper legislative house representing San Bernardino County are evenly divided between two Republicans and two Democrats.
Of the county’s five congressional representatives, two are Republicans and three are Democrats. Nevertheless, the county’s congressional districts extend to areas outside of the county and in one of those districts in which a Democrat holds the seat, in that portion of the district lying within San Bernardino County, she was outpolled by her Republican opponent.
This circumstance in which the Republicans maintain the upper hand politically defies mathematical calculation. While it is true that from the mid-1960s until 2009, San Bernardino County was a solidly Republican division of California with more registered Republicans than registered Democrats, in 2009, the number of the county’s residents identifying as members of the Democratic Party eclipsed the number of Republicans. That numerical advantage in favor of the Democrats has continued to widen over the last 13 years. As of this week, of the 1,140,132 voters in San Bernardino County, 471,023 or 41.3 percent are registered as Democrats, while 332,953 or 29.2 percent are registered Republicans. Another 243,378 voters or 21.3 percent have no party affiliation whatsoever or steadfastly decline to state any political associative preference. The remaining 8.2 percent of the county’s voters identify as members of the more obscure Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, American Independent or Green parties. San Bernardino County has remained as one of the last bastions of the GOP in the State of California in large measure not just because the Republicans turn out to vote in far higher percentages of their numbers than do the Democrats, but because they have outhustled the Democrats in appealing to the county’s swing voters – the unaligned voters who decline to state a political affiliation, as well as the Green, American Independent, Peace and Freedom and Libertarian party members. They are able to do this, quite simply, because they are better funded. The Republicans have out-fundraised by a factor of between five-to-one and six-to-one the Democrats. And a major tool in the San Bernardino County Republicans’ arsenal in this regard has been its control of the assessor’s office. Under Postmus and Dutton, tax breaks provided to the county’s wealthier landowners and business owners have encouraged them, indeed freed up money in the hands of those landowners and business entities so they are able, to make donations, in many cases very substantial ones, to Republican candidates and Republican causes.
In this way, the board of supervisors’ decision on who is to be selected to succeed Bob Dutton as assessor is likely to come down to which one of the five – Andrea Dutton, Larry Walker, Josie Gonzales, Chris Wilhite or Bradley Snowball – is willing to perpetuate the policy of showing favoritism to the political donors that have bankrolled the political careers of the current controlling majority on the board.
For myriad reasons, each of the five candidates represents a problematic choice for the board.
Andrea Dutton has no experience with the province of tax assessments and only indirect experience – through her late husband – with government and its functions. Moreover, given that Bob Dutton was her husband and that she is a medical professional, the presumption is that she was acutely aware of her husband’s condition over the last few years and understood the implication of that and was complicit in his decision to run for reelection knowing that he was at best unlikely to live long enough to serve out the term of office and the assignment he was vying to take on, resulting in what is for the county now a difficult challenge.
Larry Walker is a Democrat and not likely to be on board for using the assessor’s office to provide favorable treatment to donors to the Republican Party and Republican candidates. In addition, Walker in 2014 sought reelection as the county auditor-controller/treasurer/tax collector, won that election and then two years later resigned, rather inexplicably. He has yet to publicly disclose why, after having been with the county for more than 29 years at that point, it was necessary for him to depart, leaving the county, as it were, in the lurch.
Josie Gonzales, like Walker, is a Democrat, and, as such, not inclined to perpetuate the practice that existed under Postmus and Dutton of using the assessor’s office to advantage Republicans.
Chris Wilhite, in his own words in his application celebrated himself as the current member of the assessor’s office closest to, identified with and most trusted by Dutton, and as such his heir apparent. That should carry with it some weight. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, which include Dutton leaving the county in a predicament brought on by his decision to seek reelection while he was on his deathbed, questions have been raised about not only Dutton’s judgment and wisdom but his overarching regard for the county and its residents and whether he had their best interests in mind while he was serving as assessor. In this way, his endorsement of Wilhite might not be as valuable as it might have otherwise been. Furthermore, Wilhite’s assertion that he had Dutton’s trust and confidence raises the question of whether he too was privy that Dutton was running for office with the recognition that he could not live up to the commitment an elected official must make to his constituents, which is to faithfully serve and execute the assignment being entrusted to him. Publicly unknown at this time is whether Wilhite did know what Dutton’s health and life outlook was, whether he recognized that his boss was putting the residents and the taxpayers of the county at risk by running for reelection and what counsel Wilhite gave Dutton if he did know. To the extent that the public has come to realize the liability Dutton subjected the county to by his decision to run for reelection this year, the board of supervisors may not want to replace him with someone so closely identified with him in his operation of the office of assessor.
Bradley Snowball, while qualified to assume the position as assessor, does not have the depth of experience or degree of responsibility within the office as that of Wilhite. As such, selecting him over Wilhite might present the board of supervisors with questions. Such questions, however, might not be sufficiently bothersome to prevent the board from elevating him to the assessor’s spot if, on balance and considering the drawbacks of their other options, they consider his appointment to be called for.
Hagman, Cook, Rowe and Rutherford hold Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca Jr, the lone Democrat on the board, in low regard, recognizing him as having insufficient political muscle and believing him to lack the candlepower to outmaneuver them in any other way. All four were cognizant of the fashion in which Dutton used his authority as assessor to reward literally scores of donors who liberally contributed to Republican Jesse Armendarez’s political war chest when he ran against Baca for Fifth District supervisor in 2020. Also assisting Armendarez was Postmus, who has established a political money laundering operation in the form of a corporation he set up in Wyoming, Mountain States Consulting Group, to filter money to candidates for public office without the source of that money being disclosed.
Baca overcame Armendarez in the 2020 election, but he does not have the means to resist the will of his Republican colleagues on the board of supervisors, who have such thinly-veiled contempt and disrespect for him, and he therefore cannot intercede to get either of the Democrats who applied – Walker or Gonzales – the appointment as assessor.
Given the totality of considerations, it appears most likely that Wilhite will be given the nod to replace Dutton.
By Mark Gutglueck