Ernest Dronenburg is a Terrible Choice for County Assessor/Clerk/Recorder

by on May 30, 2014 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Election, History, Media, Politics, San Diego

By Doug Porter

Functionaries like County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg are important assets for the big money types that typically dominate local governments. Their behind the scenes efforts mean that policies get interpreted and enforced (or not) in a manner ensuring that “business as usual” remains Business As Usual.

That’s the reason why Dronenburg was among the earliest (along with Bonnie Dumanis) to get an editorial blessing from UT-San Diego. And they had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the truth to find a reason to support him. Or, as one astute commenter noted, perhaps they just penned the editorial based on a campaign press release.

Let’s face reality here; the position of “County Assessor/Clerk/Recorder” is usually not likely to be of concern to most voters. Today I’ll take a look at why you might want to be concerned as you vote on June 3rd. The bottom line: There’s a lot not to like about Dronenburg.

The county’s assessor-recorder-clerk position sets property values for tax purposes and oversees the recording of properties, births and marriages. It’s the first part of that job description that makes the position politically valuable. It’s that last part that speaks to his true character.

Here is the money quote from the May 9th UT-San Diego endorsement:

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…

Oh, Really Now?

I seem to remember how Dronenburg wasn’t a “certified property appraiser” four years ago when the UT endorsed him over “certified property appraiser” David Butler. The truth is that people often get “certified” after assuming the position, as was the case with the incumbent. Newly elected or appointed individuals are granted a Temporary Appraiser’s Certificate by the Board of Equalization prior to taking a formal examination.

Former assessor Greg Smith, who gained fame locally in 2006 via a real estate industry supported campaign to assure the public that there was no housing bubble, never even bothered with certification. Smith served in that position for 25 years, leaving mid-term in 2008 with a $163,00 annual pension and cushy job with best-buddy developer Conrad Prebys.

The UT endorsement for Dronenburg wandered into even murkier waters as it tried to tout his managerial competence, even as it credited him with programs initiated prior to his election.

How This for Leadership?

dronenburg challengeSan Diego ranks worst in the state for mistakes and required corrections to property valuations. And –shades of the current Veterans Administration crisis–we’re second worst with the backlog of assessment appeals. Dronenburg completed 12,182 assessment appeals for FY 2013. Contrast that with the 42,580 appeals completed in 2010 by his predecessor.

To be completely fair, more appeals were being made following the collapse of the real estate market in 2008. Which makes the 14,506 appeals carried over at the end of last year look even worse, given that Dronenburg had the advantages of increased staff (13 positions) and a higher budget ($60,307,881).

There are three people running against Dronenburg and that’s very unusual for a “downballot” office like this one. But the number of challengers speaks volumes to the level of dissatisfaction among both users and employees of the county clerks office.

Customer satisfaction in Dronenburg’s world is measured via paper slips dropped into a counter-top box, sorted and counted by the man himself. It’s little wonder that his “ratings” have surged as election-time nears.

I talked with a phone canvasser who happened to dial up an employee of the county clerks office and couldn’t get off the phone (calls are supposed to be short and to the point) as this office worker poured her heart out about how miserable the workplace was.

Dronenburg has dinged taxpayers for $36,472 in out-of-county travel expenses, more than the total travel expenses racked up by the clerk’s office over the past 25 years.

Back in Time for Business As Usual

To understand the incumbent’s political value (Business As Usual), it’s necessary to travel back in time. (I promise I’ll only hit the high points)

Dronenburg came under Federal scrutiny back in the 1980’s as a director for the Carlsbad-based Seapointe Savings and Loan Assn, which was seized by federal regulators in 1986 and declared insolvent following $21 million in losses via an allegedly illegal commodity futures trading operation.

From the September 4, 1988 Los Angeles Times:

Several months after the S&L’s collapse, a related San Bernardino-based mutual fund, at which Dronenburg was also a director, began to report losses in another risky and complex trading scheme. The once high-flying YES Fund was eventually merged with another fund in an effort to stem its losses and flight of investors, but it soon came to be known in the investment community as the “Titanic fund” because it “sank with nearly all hands on board….”

…Strategic Investment Services of Riverside was the trading adviser to both Seapointe and the YES Fund. Dirk Rose, founder and principal of Strategic, brought Dronenburg onto both boards…

Dronenburg blamed the financial troubles on the “nature of boards of directors that meet only once every three months.” He ultimately was not prosecuted.

He also escaped prosecution by the feds following an investigation into allegations the State Board of Equalization was awarding huge tax breaks to corporations which in turn made donations to the board’s members.

From the October 15, 1988 Los Angeles Times:

Last year, the tax board set the total property assessments for eight major utility firms at $57.8 billion–nearly $2 billion below the recommendations of its staff. The reductions, according to county assessors, meant a loss of about $20 million in tax revenues last year for county and city governments.

The same eight utilities, which include Southern California Gas Co., Southern California Edison Co. and General Telephone Co., had contributed $32,200 to Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg since 1986, records show.

The three votes needed to approve the reductions on the five-member board were cast by Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg.

While on the State Board of Equalization Dronenburg was also involved in two controversial votes; one against a 42 cent increase in wholesale prices for tobacco products other than cigarettes, and another for (later reversed after public criticism) exempting banks from having to pay property taxes on improvements related to ATM installations.

A Failed Proposition

LGBT_activists_call_on_San_Diego_County__1286480000_2182495_ver1.0_640_480The UT endorsement of Dronenburg called his actions in response to the California Supreme Court lifting a ban on gay marriage in 2013 a “proverbial tempest in a teapot.”

Via the LGBT Weekly:

Since Mayor Sanders came out for marriage equality in 2007, moving openly against the LGBT community has become almost unheard of in San Diego politics. So it was something of a shock when County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg Jr. filed one of the last court challenges against overturning Proposition 8. He withdrew it too late to avoid the spotlight being put on the power of an otherwise obscure office.

I’ll let the Reader tells the rest of the story here:

His decision to challenge the court’s reversal of Prop 8 didn’t win him any popularity contests. Dissenters quickly turned to Facebook, creating a “Recall San Diego County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg” page. That page is still up and running. Currently, 661 [eds. note: It’s now up to 743] people have shown their support for ousting him from office.

His efforts to halt same-sex marriages from taking place were paid for by Prop 8 attorney and lead counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, Charles LiMandri, according to an October 28 “Behested Payment Report” Dronenburg filed with the county.

The form reveals LiMandri donated $11,240 in legal work to Dronenburg and the county to pay for “services required for the drafting and filing of a legal brief with the State Supreme Court.” Dronenburg described the legal work as “filing legal brief raising questions and asking for guidance.”

The Fair Political Practices Commission ended up sending a letter to Dronenburg, advising him of his responsibility to report the in-kind donation from LiMandri. Ooops.

It’s a tangled web they weave over in the anti-gay world.

Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Church

Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Church

There are the Wednesday mornings Dronenburg takes off to attend bible classes at the Skyline Church, home-base for national student seminars on promoting “natural marriage” on their campuses. I was unable to confirm a report that the church is promoting Dronenburg as the “only moral choice,” but it certainly sounds like something they’d do.

There’s LiMandri’s role as the general counsel for the National Organization For Marriage. He is also on record as calling same-sex unions “societal suicide” and saying that the “destruction of the concept of gender is perhaps Satan’s greatest accomplishment.”

The point is that the Dronenburg/LiMandri alliance and the lawsuit they filed was much more than the UT wanted it’s readers to believe.

Meet Susan Guinn

This was an excerpt from Doug Porter’s daily column at San Diego Free Press, an online media partner of the OB Rag.

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