The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday chose Christopher Wilhite to replace the late Robert Dutton as county assessor for the next three-and-a-half months.
Dutton died July 23, a month and 16 days after he was reelected assessor for the second time without opposition to the position of the county’s highest-situated taxing authority.
Dutton was heavily involved in real estate speculation and development in the 1980s and 1990s, primarily in Rancho Cucamonga where he acceded to the position of chairman of the Rancho Cucamonga Chamber of Commerce. In 2000, largely on the strength of his family fortune and the support of the development and business community, he was elected to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council. Two years later, he successfully vied for the California Assembly. After a single term in California’s lower legislative house, in 2004, he ran to replace Jim Brulte, the Republican leader of the California Senate who was being termed out.
Once in place in California’s upper legislative house, Dutton served, essentially, as Brulte’s surrogate, effectively extending the latter’s tenure as a legislator not in name but in effect. Over the next eight years, Dutton followed Brulte’s instructions and in 2010, under an arrangement engineered by Brulte, Dutton assumed the position of Republican Senate Leader, heading that 40-seat legislative body’s 15-member GOP delegation.In 2012, at which point Dutton was termed out of the Senate, he sought but failed to win election to the U.S. Congress representing California’s newly-drawn 31st Congressional District, capturing second place in that year’s open primary among a field of four Democrats, himself and incumbent Republican Congressman Gary Miller. In that year’s November general election, Miller handed Dutton the only defeat of his political career by a 55.18 percent-to-44.82 percent margin.
Dutton considered running for San Bernardino County Supervisor in 2014, but having been burned in an effort to take on an incumbent and established Republican in the 2012 Congressional race convinced him he should not challenge Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, a member of the GOP. Instead, he ran to succeed Dennis Draeger, who was retiring that year as county assessor, which carried with it the duties of the county recorder and county clerk. In the November general election against Tom Harp, the assistant assessor who had 34 years’ experience in the assessor’s office, Dutton prevailed by a slim 50.61 to 49.39 percent margin.
It took Dutton a bit of time to get his sea legs, but once he did, he set about in earnest in replicating the politicization of the assessor’s office that had existed under Bill Postmus, who was Draeger’s predecessor as assessor, and that of Gordon Young, who had been the assessor prior to the assessor Postmus had succeeded, Don Williamson. Postmus, who had once been chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the chairman of the Republican Central Committee, used his position as assessor to set tax rates favorable to major donors to the Republican Party and the county’s Republican candidates, allowing those donors to be even more generous, and thereby structuring a way for Postmus to be a kingmaker who controlled who was elected to the county’s most powerful political positions. In 2009, after less than three years as county assessor, Postmus imploded, and was eventually charged with and convicted on six political corruption charges relating to utilizing his position as assessor for political purposes after it was revealed that he had installed into 13 of the assessor’s highest paying staff positions 11 individuals who had no experience in assessing or appraising property but were instead utilizing county facilities and equipment to engage in electioneering and partisan political activity.
As assessor, Dutton was able to use the authority at his command to assist the county’s Republicans to maintain their grip on the reins of political and governmental power by utilizing two standards for assessments, including one for the property, premises, buildings, warehouses, factories and equipment of major donors to the Republican Party, Republican candidates and Republican causes and another standard for everyone else. In this way, Republicans were able to defy the long odds against them, as countywide Democrats have consistently since before Dutton was elected assessor enjoyed a substantial advantage over Republicans in terms of voter registration, as is reflected in the current numbers – with 472,866 or 41.3 percent of the county’s 1,144,836 voters registered as Democrats and 334,216 voters or 29.2 percent registered as Republicans. Despite those numbers, four of the county’s five supervisors are Republicans and on 17 of the county’s 24 city and town councils Republicans outnumber Democrats.
A major factor in this discrepancy between the party affiliation of the county’s voters and the political association of the officials elected to represent them consists of the manner in which the Republicans consistently outspend their rival Democrats on political campaigns. The willingness of Postmus and of Dutton to use the power of their political position to not only encourage Republican donors to support their party’s standard bearers but to free up money that could be used to make those donations by cutting them breaks on the amount of money they have to pay in tribute to the government has had a direct impact on the outcome of elections, as Republican candidates have consistently been in a position to use the infusion of cash into their political war chests to pay for mailers, hand bills, signs, newspaper ads, radio and televisions spots, telephone banks and other means of promotion to convince voters – in particular the 29.5 percent of voters who are not affiliated with either the Democrats or the Republicans – to vote for Republican candidates.
There is evidence to suggest that Dutton himself was a beneficiary of these arrangements, as no one was willing to oppose him for reelection in 2018 or this year. Armed with the ability to trade lower assessments for a percentage of the money saved in that way being deposited into his electioneering coffers, Dutton was a formidable opponent to anyone who might challenge him, and no one did.
As early as 2018, Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, then the lone Democrat on the board of supervisors, conscious that she was due to be termed out of office in 2020, contemplated making a run for assessor, forming in September of that year a committee, Gonzales for Assessor 2022, and began accepting donations into the account for that committee and then transferred into it as well the money she had left over from her previous account for her supervisorial campaigns. By December 31, 2021, she had accumulated into that political war chest nearly half of a million dollars – $495,147.83.
Still, Gonzales was wary of entering the fray against Dutton, with his ability to tap into a wellspring of donations from donors for whom he was prepared to provide assessment reductions in return for the money he needed to overcome any opponent.
Meanwhile, Dutton was aware that he was facing a far more existential challenge than Gonzales’s political one. It is not publicly known precisely when Dutton learned that he had developed prostate cancer, but there are grounds to believe that he had unmistakable signs that he was so afflicted by late 2019. The failure of his doctors to move aggressively against his condition had led to the cancer metastasizing into his bones by 2021 – a virtual death sentence. At that point, it was merely a matter of time.
Yet Dutton, for whatever reason yet undisclosed, decided to press forward with a re-elective effort in 2022. It is unknown if or how many of his political associates Dutton had clued in about his medical condition. There were, potentially, practical partisan considerations at play. Had he made a public disclosure of his condition, Gonzales, a Democrat, would see her opening and take it. Her declaration of candidacy and filing to participate in the 2020 election would change the entire dynamic that was in place. Dutton, while he would have access to considerable electioneering funds and held the advantage of incumbency, knew he was a paper political tiger. He understood that he would not have the physical stamina to engage in a campaign, particularly a bruising one that would surely be required if he was faced with an opponent who had half of a million dollars to spend. To preserve the hold the GOP held over the assessor’s office and ensure that its taxing authority could continue to be wielded to keep the county Republican machine in control of the entire edifice of San Bernardino County government, the sounder strategy would be to continue to maintain a profile of strength and political invulnerability. That way, he might, as he had done in 2018, stave off any challengers, paving the way for his reelection. In so doing, he would be retained in office without opposition, and remain as assessor as long as his fragile and inevitably deteriorating health held out, at which time he could resign, ensuring that his successor would be chosen by the Republican-controlled board of supervisors.
Whether Dutton had confided in Curt Hagman, the powerful chairman of the board of supervisors, is not known. The Sentinel has learned that late last year, Dutton did tell another Republican, a former state legislator, that his cancer had progressed into his skeletal system.
Though the Sentinel late last year and early this year had noted that Dutton was isolated and no longer accessible, and had even picked up a rumor that Dutton was being sequestered by those around him because he was manifesting indications of early-stage dementia, it had no knowledge or inkling of his cancer, let alone its advanced stage.
Equally in the dark, apparently, was Gonzales, who let the March 11 deadline to file to run for assessor elapse. Thus, Dutton faced no opposition in the June 7 primary election. He was reelected with 100 percent of the 200,752 votes cast.
No one, not even Dutton, anticipated that his death would come so soon. In the aftermath of his July 23 passing, the board of supervisors failed to act with the alacrity necessary to put the matter of who shall serve as assessor for the term beginning in January 2023 and running through January 2027 before the voters in the upcoming November 8 election.
Instead, the board solicited applications that were due by August 18 from individuals willing to serve in the position of assessor/recorder/county clerk through the expiration of the term that Dutton was elected to in November 2018, running through January 3, 2023. The board further intends to solicit applications from individuals willing to serve in the position of assessor/recorder/county clerk from January 2023 until January 2025 and to place on the November 2024 ballot a special election to fill the position of assessor/recorder/county clerk from January 2025 until January 2027.
The solicitation brought five responses. One of those was from Dutton’s widow, Andrea Dutton, who was married to Dutton for more than 30 years. Josie Gonzales, who did not run in this year’s June primary election despite having indicated with the formation of her campaign committee in 2018 that she was interest in the assessor’s post, also applied. Another applicant was Larry Walker, an attorney who had been a Chino City Council member and mayor in the 1980s, was elected to the board of supervisors representing the Fourth District from 1986 until 1998, at which point he was elected to the position of county auditor-controller/recorder/county clerk and served in those combined positions until 2010, whereupon a reorganization merged the auditor-controller’s function with that of the county treasurer/tax collector, a combination of offices Walker was elected to in 2010 and in 2014 and from which he resigned in 2016. Bradley Snowball, a county employee who began with the fiscal division in 1995 and transitioned into an auditor-appraiser position with the assessor’s office two years later who now holds a position as a supervisor in the assessor’s appeals division, also sought the appointment. Applying as well was 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 and who was hired in July of 2000 to work in the assessor’s office, where he steadily advanced until becoming the assistant assessor, described as Dutton’s second-in-command.
On September 13, the board of supervisors interviewed the five. The board asked and the candidates fielded questions pertaining to the need for ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion among the staff hired into the assessor’s, recorder’s and county clerk’s offices; the relationship between assessor’s office and the county’s property owners; educating and informing the public as to the function of the three offices; staff retention and recruitment; and what changes should be made in the office.
There were no questions touching on the politicization of the assessor’s office’s function.
Snowball was interviewed first. He told the board that he had spent a large portion of his career in dealing with appeals.
“I came in at the tail end of the dotcom crash,” Snowball said, emphasizing that he had extensive experience assessing properties plagued by hardship. “I worked with the assessor’s office in the appeals division post 9-11. We also looked at the economy and the subprime market taking off in the real estate market, which then shifted appeals over to business property. From there we had the worldwide crash from the subprime market. So, basically, for the most part, my career has been spent primarily in appeals. Out of my 25-year career with the assessor’s office, I have spent at least two-thirds of that in the appeals department.”
Snowball indicated he was interested in securing the assessor/recorder/county clerk appointment until January and continuing to serve in that capacity until 2025 but not running in the November 2024 election.
Gonzales indicated she was interested in getting the three-month appointment until January, the two-year appointment from January 2023 until January 2025 and in seeking election in November 2024 to remain in office until January 2027.
Nevertheless, Gonzales said, she would serve as a caretaker in the position of assessor/recorder/county clerk, and devote herself to whipping the office into shape for whoever might succeed her.
“We know a department the size of the assessor/recorder/clerk’s is a bit of a battleship and it’s not going to turn on a dime,” she said. “There has to be a period in which, if I am appointed, I go out and make the necessary contacts, begin to build a relationship, whether it is that I am appointed on the second term, let alone the first term or not; it’s in a sense preparing the ground for whoever will come in for the second term.”
With Bob Dutton’s death, Gonzales said, the leadership of the three offices was “wobbly. Working through that and working to realign that ship is going to be a take-a-minute. I want to do that and it’s very important for me to set the ground, get it ready for whoever is going to come for what I would say is that latter two years of this appointment process.”
Andrea Dutton said she was seeking the appointment to complete the remainder of the term to which her husband was elected in 2018, running until next January, but was not interested is remaining in the post beyond that point.
“If appointed, I will continue with Bob’s vision, leadership style, structure and approaches that he was elected to uphold by the voters and his constituents,” she said. “He had a strategic plan and I am asking for permission to fulfill it for the last three months of his term. The assessor-recorder’s office is one of professionalism, efficiency, integrity, with a commitment to a fair, accurate, equitable and friendly customer service. Given the opportunity, I will continue to lead the 250 employees known as ‘Team ARC [assessor, recorder clerk]’ with the same leadership style as my husband. I will continue to implement the policies and procedures which are currently practiced by “Team ARC’ with the assistance and the collaboration of the existing staff. This will continue to assure the proper administration of the office of assessor-recorder with the same mission values culture that Bob brought to the county.”
Larry Walker, a Democrat, despite initially paying almost fawning tribute to Dutton, during his interview offered the closest delineation, assessment and indictment of the politicization of the assessor’s function of any of the candidates.
“Bob Dutton’s shoes will be very hard to fill,” Walker said in his opening remarks. “He elevated the assessor’s position tremendously over the last eight years from what it had been for many years. The challenge will be to sustain what he had built and then seeing if there is a way to improve on that.”
In sizing up what he said were his qualifications, Walker said, “I break them down into ability, integrity and experience.”
It was in expounding on integrity that Walker made allusion to the manner in which the assessor’s function and authority have been used to politically advantage one group over another.
“Integrity actually has two aspects,” Walker said. “One is having strength to withstand pressure when necessary. The other is having knowledge of ethical rules, cases and being able to apply them in situations so that the ability to be strong and withstand pressure is coupled with an ability to identify those areas that deserve that kind of treatment.”
Walker said, “As tax collector I had great conversations with people. Nobody’s excited about paying their property tax. To me, the question is about service. If you serve the people, then they’re not going to be uptight about the fact that you’re deciding how much their house is worth, as long as they’re convinced that everybody that comes in with that house and those circumstances gets the same assessment. One of the important things about this job is I have to sit here and say my job is to be totally independent of the five of you and make decisions that are according to law and according to my relationship as an elected official with people.”
Walker then acknowledged political reality and how the power and partisanship on the board of supervisors is likely to trump principle and ethics. In doing so, he tacitly acknowledged why it was that he would not himself get the appointment.
“Then I have to turn the page and say, ‘I want to build a very strong relationship with the board of supervisors’ because we have to work together to make this system work for the people of San Bernardino County,” he said.
During his interview, Wilhite evinced a command of the ins and outs of the assessor’s office as it is currently being run. In summarizing how the department should be managed, he said, “We want to be open and fair to the property owners and the taxpayers… to provide them an answer without being bureaucratic.”
During his questioning of Wilhite, Chairman of the Board Curt Hagman telegraphed that Wilhite’s selection was a foregone conclusion.
“From your position as assistant, what are some of the things we need to be doing better to prepare for the future?” Hagman asked. “I know on several applications, you all predicted [a] downturn in the real estate market. So, obviously us (sic) as a county have to look at our budgets coming forward, but also potential split roll and other things. What are some of the things that may keep you up at night that we need to be addressing today?”
In answering the question, Wilhite referenced numerous ongoing circumstances in the office he has been dealing with in the more than month-and-a-half since Dutton’s death while serving as the office’s de facto leader as if he was practically being set up to continue in just such a position, such that he was the logical heir apparent to Dutton.
Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford said, “While I think we have many qualified candidates and you would each bring something very unique to the office, it struck me that Mr. Wilhite having been put in that position by Bob and by evidence of his detailed knowledge on the interview and the PMIS [project information management system] project and a variety of other tasks going on in the office, is the best person to get us through the interim, provide the most stability to the organization, continue to lead the staff that he has already been helpful in leading. And he demonstrated to me through his application and his comments here today that he would be the best of this great group of applicants.
After First District Supervisor Paul Cook, Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca Jr and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe indicated they were likewise favorably impressed by Wilhite, Hagman said, “I think the consensus is to keep the trains going for the next three months and get through some of these milestones that the department has to go through.”
Baca made a motion to appoint Wilhite, seconded by Rutherford, which was unanimously passed.
Though the board is intent on following up this month’s appointment of Wilhite with a second solicitation of applications, likely in November, followed by action in December to appoint someone to serve as assessor/recorder/county clerk from January 2023 to 2025, there are legal experts who maintain that action will not pass constitutional and California Government Code and California Elections Code muster if it is challenged, as it does not appear that the board of supervisors has the authority to appoint Dutton’s successor for the timeframe between January 2023 and January 2025 as it is purposed to do in December.
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, under the governmental code and election code, 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 in January 2019 Dutton was sworn in 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, again by default, 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, on the basis of its own five votes, to the office rather than appointing Dutton’s replacement, since Dutton 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 either an election to replace Dutton or a fulfillment of the election that took place in June, which cannot occur since Dutton will not be available to serve.
It appears that 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.
The board’s assumption of the authority to make an appointment of the individual to serve in the capacity of assessor/recorder/county clerk in lieu of an election is 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 an appointee of the board of supervisors 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 that pertain to ensuring San Bernardino County’s residents’ rights to elect the individual who sets their property tax rates. Reputable legal authorities contacted by the Sentinel indicated 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.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday chose Christopher Wilhite to replace the late Robert Dutton as county assessor for the next three-and-a-half months.