Statement: “The campaign for county assessor/recorder/clerk ought to be voters’ easiest decision on the June 3 ballot. Here’s all you really need to know: Incumbent Ernie Dronenburg is the only one of the four candidates who, at least as of a couple weeks ago, even met the legal requirement that this officeholder be a certified property appraiser.” — May 9, 2014, U-T San Diego editorial supporting Dronenburg in his bid to be re-elected county assessor/recorder/clerk.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: When it comes to obscure local elected officials, it’s hard to beat the job of county assessor/recorder/clerk. The person’s duties — appraising property, overseeing public notices, issuing marriage licenses — are usually about as newsworthy as they sound.

Then along came Ernie Dronenburg, the current holder of the office.

Dronenburg grabbed the spotlight last year when he worked with an attorney for right-wing causes to push for clarification in the state’s legal battle over same-sex marriage.

Dronenburg wanted the state’s highest judges to prevent county clerks — like him — from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples while the issue was worked out in court. He said he merely wanted to prevent invalid marriages; critics accused him of pursuing an anti-gay agenda.

Now, Dronenburg faces three rivals in a race “steeped in party, LGBT politics,” as U-T San Diego put it this week.

Earlier this month, the U-T’s editorial board endorsed Dronenburg for a second term and included this startling reasoning: “The campaign for county assessor/recorder/clerk ought to be voters’ easiest decision on the June 3 ballot. Here’s all you really need to know: Incumbent Ernie Dronenburg is the only one of the four candidates who, at least as of a couple weeks ago, even met the legal requirement that this officeholder be a certified property appraiser.”

If the U-T’s statement is true, it would be fairly damning: Why would anyone want to vote for an unqualified candidate?

But the truth is more complicated.

According to a spokesman with the California Board of Equalization, which oversees the collection of taxes and fees in the state, Dronenburg is indeed the only one of the four candidates who is certified as a property appraiser. (Dronenburg, by the way, used to serve on the Board of Equalization and was certified in 1997.)

But here’s the catch: The certificates are only issued to people who work for county assessor’s offices or the state Board of Equalization.

The other candidates can’t get a certificate because they don’t work for either of those entities. For that reason, none of them have one, the spokesman said. (The other three candidates include a real estate specialist, a financial analyst and a consumer advocate. All have met qualifications to appear on the ballot.)

But any of them can get the certificate upon being elected, and the state Board of Equalization even lays out the procedure in a Frequently Asked Questions sheet for county assessor candidates:

Is a candidate running for election of assessor (or person considering running for assessor) required to have a valid appraiser’s certificate issued by the Board of Equalization?
No, a candidate is not required to hold an appraiser’s certificate.
However if elected, within 30 days of taking office he/she must apply for a temporary appraiser’s certificate with the Board of Equalization…. The Board of Equalization issues a permanent appraiser’s certificate when a temporarily certified appraiser attains a passing score on the Board-prepared certification examination. Once a temporary certificate has been issued, a person has one year to pass the certification examination.

The U-T editorial’s statement has an element of truth. To be a county assessor, a person does need to be certified as a property appraiser.

But the editorial suggests that voters should take a certificate (or lack of one) into account when they choose the best candidate for that office. In fact, the editorial straight-out says, “here’s all you really need to know.”

Here’s some more that voters really need to know: Only people who work for the assessor’s office or the state Board of Equalization can get those certificates, and the state makes it clear that candidates don’t need one to run for office. Once someone is elected, he or she can take a year to get the certificate.

Bill Osborne, who oversees editorials at the U-T, told VOSD that he stands by the Dronenburg editorial but acknowledged he may have worded it differently if he’d known the certificate was only available to those working in the assessor’s office. He writes in an email:

The point I was trying to make in the editorial is that Ernie Dronenburg, is far more qualified for the position than any of his opponents. I stand by that assessment.

This is one of the very few elected offices that has a requirement beyond age and residency. The requirement exists because it is believed to be important that the assessor have certain technical knowledge. Dronenburg, by virtue of his years of experience with the state Board of Equalization as the incumbent county assessor/recorder/clerk, has that technical knowledge today, as well as experience in applying it. As of today, his opponents do not.

I was aware that a successful candidate for this position who lacked the required certification is then required to obtain the certification within a year. I was not aware that someone could only become a certified appraiser if they already work for a county assessor’s office or the state board. I would have written the editorial a bit differently had I known that, but it does not change my central argument, as I concluded in the editorial, that none of the challengers has Dronenburg’s experience, knowledge or track record … “

We define a claim as “Misleading” if “the statement takes an element of truth and badly distorts it or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.”

This statement qualifies because it leaves readers with the impression that Dronenburg’s opponents are unqualified for office because they fail to meet a “legal requirement.”

The U-T editorial board is misleading readers by distorting the truth about the qualifications for this office. The statement might have been just “A Stretch” under the Fact Check definitions, but the U-T’s bold statement — “here’s all you really need to know” — clearly gives a “deceptive impression.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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