Local Politics

Thursday, May 29 2014 04:50 PM

Even in a drought, assessor race is kicking up mud

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    Kern County assessor candidate Jon Lifquist, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox" on March 31, 2014.

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    Kern County assessor candidate Lupe Esquivias, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox" on March 31, 2014.

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    Kern County assessor candidate Russell Johnson, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox."

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Here comes the mud.

Assessor-Recorder candidate Jon Lifquist and two of his big supporters -- current Assessor-Recorder Jim Fitch and Assistant Assessor Tony Ansolabehere -- have used the county email system to organize campaign activities for Lifquist.

Paul Stine, a local conservative political observer, uncovered the emails through a public records request and shot them off to Russell Johnson and media outlets.

Splat.

Johnson violated state elections law by failing to file, within 24 hours, campaign finance reports detailing $1,000 donations he received.

Johnson received 48 such $1,000 contributions between March 18 and May 17. State law required him to report each of those publicly within 24 hours.

He didn't.

Fitch and Ansolabehere not only alerted reporters to Johnson's failure to file, but followed up with repeated calls and emails pitching the story.

Splotch.

And an anonymous tipster encouraged reporters to look into the recent arrest record of the third assessor's candidate -- Lupe Esquivias.

Turns out the Bakersfield Police Department arrested Esquivias Feb. 10 on suspicion of spousal abuse. The District Attorney's office, however, declined to file charges, citing a lack of evidence.

Squish.

Welcome, everyone, to the Kern County Assessor-Recorder's race, arguably now the muddiest local contest on next Tuesday's primary ballot.

SERIOUS BUSINESS

The stakes are high. If one of the three candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, he will win a county job that wields a great deal of power and has a major impact on how much property owners pay in taxes.

The Assessor's office sets property values in Kern County. Those values form the basis for calculating each land owner's property tax bills.

If the three candidates split up the vote more evenly and no one captures a majority, the top two vote-getters will face off in November.

Until now, the race has been focused largely on issues and who is best qualified to be assessor-recorder.

Lifquist is the most experienced, with 25 years in the Assessor's office. He's backed by political consultant Mark Abernathy and the top officers in the Assessor-Recorder's office. Lifquist points to his experience as the best reason to elect him.

Johnson, a Bakersfield City Council member, has no experience and would need to get a license to hold the office. But he has a well-established political brand in Bakersfield. He argues the office has had bad leadership and he is just the right outsider to turn the place around.

Esquivias, also an appraiser in the office, is less experienced than Lifquist but argues he's more creative and has better ideas about technology and how to advance the office into the future.

JOHNSON

Johnson did fail to file the required campaign finance documents within the 24-hour deadline, the Kern County elections office confirmed.

But the requirement to file those forms in local races only took effect this year, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

"I was made aware yesterday that regulation has changed," Johnson said Thursday.

He immediately filed the required forms -- late -- and said all of the donations were reported in his recent pre-election campaign finance report.

He didn't want to say he broke the law.

But, pressed by a reporter, Johnson said the forms should have been filed earlier and weren't.

LIFQUIST

Lifquist, Ansolabehere and Fitch also acknowledged they stepped over the line by using county emails -- and in Lifquist's case his county phone line -- to support Lifquist's campaign.

Lifquist exchanged an email in early March with Ansolabehere -- who is acting as his campaign treasurer -- asking him to review a campaign statement.

He sent the email through the county system from home, he said, and then was cautioned by Ansolabehere not to do so again.

But he later used the county email to discuss campaign yard signs with a supporter, plan his campaign slogan and discuss campaign strategy.

In an email exchange with his brother Alan, Lifquist discussed Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner's recommendation that he hire Abernathy.

"Problem is he's talking about going into debt to the tune of about $60,000 to bring Abernathy in," Lifquist wrote.

Lifquist hired Abernathy and -- at least once -- used his county phone to call the consultant's Western Pacific Research firm.

"It was pretty dumb responding to emails about the campaign," Lifquist said.

But he said he has tried to conduct his campaign in an ethical manner.

Lifquist said he has taken about 300 hours of vacation in the past three months -- a fact confirmed by the Kern County Auditor-Controller's office -- but hasn't stopped working as chief appraiser.

He spends some of each day working on campaign efforts, Lifquist said. But even though he's mostly doing county work on those days, he said, he's taking them as full vacation days.

Fitch said he and other Lifquist supporters were aiming to keep the use of county resources on the campaign to zero.

They missed that mark, he said.

But he argues that the uses were "minimal and incidental" -- and did not violate state government code that allows for some occasional use of equipment, office space and the telephones for personal purposes as long as it does not result in gain to the user or loss to the local agency.

But Kern County ordinance codes are a little less permissive.

"No person employed under the (civil service) system created by this chapter shall participate in any political activity on county time or in any manner involving the use of county property or expenditure of public funds, nor conveying the implication of county endorsement or support for a candidate for local, state or federal office," the code states.

ESQUIVIAS

Bakersfield police arrested Esquivias Feb. 10 on charges of inflicting injury on his wife, Camille, confirmed Bakersfield Police Department Detective Kevin Fidler.

Four days later, on Valentine's Day, the Kern County District Attorney's office rejected the case.

A spokesperson for the office said the case was rejected for lack of evidence.

"Spousal abuse charges were never filed and a complaint was not issued," Esquivias wrote in an email. "I did not commit an act of violence. Camille and I are working on reconciliation at the present moment."

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