Greg Smith left a plan.
After 25 years, Smith had some ideas about how his elected post should look after he exited in 2008 as the county’s assessor/recorder/clerk to work for a local real estate magnate.
Wielding a generation’s worth of cachet, Smith penned a plan in his retirement letter for how the office should carry on in his absence. His right-hand man, David Butler, should take over in the interim for a couple of years, he wrote. And then Jeffrey Olson, a younger rising bureaucrat, would get his endorsement for the election to come in 2010.
But Smith’s best-laid plans for the post — the county’s top property valuator and the overseer of public records like births, deaths and marriages — have gone awry. The race that should be boring and technical is beginning to look theatrical.
Smith was nearly mum on his potentially stymied plan. “What can I say? Things do change,” he said.
Butler, the appointed assessor who’s a 34-year veteran in the office, decided he likes the job and wants to keep it. This startled Olson, the would-be heir apparent, who was until recently the only candidate officially in the race.
Now, Olson has to campaign against his boss.
“I don’t want to say awkward, but it’s what it is,” Butler said of the daily proximity.
To make things tougher, they’re running for an obscure seat, one the populace wonders why it’s an elected position at all — if they’ve even heard of the post.
The drama doesn’t stop there. The two officemates aren’t the only ones on the field.
Enter Ernie Dronenburg, a longtime politician who served on the state Board of Equalization, the public agency tasked with levying and collecting taxes, and the county Board of Education.
“I ran for [a seat] that was more obscure than this,” Dronenburg said. “That’s what I told people: ‘I ran for obscurity and found it.’”
His decades of experience in wonky positions snagged Dronenburg some lucrative endorsements.
Four members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, the same supervisors who appointed Butler to the seat last year, back Dronenburg. He thinks some of Olson’s endorsers — his friend Smith, or the conservative Lincoln Club — might have picked him or at least done a double-endorsement if he’d thrown his hat in the ring earlier.
Then there’s Howard Johnson, a seemingly perennial candidate for countywide office, a former office worker for the recorder department who scanned birth and death certificates into the computer system who thinks he’s seen enough to run the office. He ran against Smith in 2006 and against Supervisor Greg Cox in 2008.
The 48-year-old former Navy photographer, baby photographer and Chevron gas station cashier said his independent fundraising business is slow right now.
“I need a job,” he said. “When I was working down there … I saw how things worked and thought — ‘Hey, I could do that.”
The Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk’s office hasn’t been up for grabs since the early 1980s — the early years of the landmark Proposition 13 that has dictated the landscape for property taxes in California. Though the post is not one for a policymaker — just a rule-follower — some of the candidates use Prop. 13 as a foundation for their campaign.
Aside from the drama, there are a few issues and talking points at the center of the race. Modernizing the county recording system. Efficiently and proactively lowering property tax bills when homeowners have lost value in their properties. (Last year was an unprecedented year for those downward assessments, and Olson and Butler have been buried in stacks of paper dealing with the task.) And serving the homeowners, title insurance reps and other businesspeople who use the office.
Smith had a reputation for bending over backwards for customers.
Smith went to work for prominent local businessman Conrad Prebys at the beginning of 2009, and declined to weigh in on the race, aside from the acknowledgement that things have changed since he made his plan.
“I’m retired and I’ve got a new career and I’d just rather not,” he said. “I’m really busy right now.”
Smith’s pick for the seat, Olson, had been waiting for this race for a couple of decades, but he didn’t think it’d be this contentious.
He rose through the ranks of the office since he started working there in 1990 as a property assessor. When his former boss Smith left, he interviewed to be tapped, but Butler got it.
He’s been methodically making the rounds all around the county, including a fair in Ramona, the Lemon Festival in Chula Vista, the Fourth of July in East County.
“I get a lot of questions: ‘What do you do? Why is it elected?’” he said. “It’s because it affects your wallet.”
Butler, meanwhile, has been at the helm for about a year, appointed to fill Smith’s vacant seat. In the post, he’s cut staff, cut hours of public access and closed two branch offices to deal with declining budgets in the recession.
Butler accepted a 4.5 percent raise in his salary in January, moving him up to $199,139 annually, a motion Olson called fiscally irresponsible.
Butler said he thinks Smith figured he wouldn’t run because Butler’s pension is already at its maximum level.
“Well, you know, it’s not all about the money,” Butler said. “There’s some things I think need to be done.”
The office is midway through a couple of initiatives for bettering the electronic recording system, he said, and he wants to stay in office until they’re done. That means campaigning — something the lifetime bureaucrat never counted on.
“Coming up through the ranks — it was never something I thought would be my forte,” he said. “But I like what I’m doing. I like my job. And I have to campaign in order to keep doing it.”
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