Most voters probably have no idea what the office of Santa Clara County Assessor does, or why they should care. Some voters may think, “I haven’t heard of any scandals with this agency so I guess I’ll just go ahead and vote for the incumbent.” Don’t do it! Here’s why.
The incumbent assessor, Larry Stone, is a well-connected member of the Old Boys Network but, in my eyewitness opinion, he has failed miserably as a leader. I base my opinion on my 20-year career of working with Mr. Stone in the assessor’s office. During that time I attained the position of senior appraiser, and I once had the honor of being named County Employee of the Month.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of my most experienced and dedicated peers, Mr. Stone often bases critical decisions on what he perceives to be best for his own political career. In this way he has established a long and negative track record of making poor choices. Here are two of his most damaging examples.
One of his most expensive and continuing failures began two decades ago and annually wastes tens of thousands of tax dollars. This waste arises from efforts to reconcile avoidable computer-generated discrepancies in the program that tracks assessed property values.
Please note Mr. Stone has been well aware of the cause of these avoidable discrepancies and their ongoing wasteful costs. When I brought a potential solution to the attention of one of Mr. Stone’s top managers, I was told the office had already decided not to take any action. This intentional disregard of a simple solution ensures these annual losses will continue indefinitely. Isn’t such an unnecessary wasting of public money the very definition of malfeasance in office?
Mr. Stone has failed to resolve issues both small and large. A consulting firm retained by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2004 concluded that with capable management, the assessor’s computer system could be replaced within seven to ten years. By contrast, after two decades of effort, Mr. Stone still can’t get the job done.
Another big failure put the health of his employees and the public at risk. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Supervisors temporarily required all county employees who use computers to work remotely. Later, in mid-2021, against all advice and the concerns of department employees, Mr. Stone stubbornly insisted all department employees return to the office to do their work. Meanwhile, employees in most other county agencies continued to work remotely, for their own safety and the safety of the public.
The consequence of Mr. Stone’s stubbornness was an outbreak of COVID-19 infections among department employees soon after their return.
This wasn’t Mr. Stone’s first public misstep. He once asked the Board of Supervisors to delay making Cesar Chavez Day a paid holiday for county employees. His lame justification was that adding another holiday would prevent his office from completing its work by the annual deadline. The Board of Supervisors rejected his request.
Mr. Stone has also shown that he is no friend to workers in his own department. He unilaterally withdrew from the monthly meetings between union members and management. Then he replaced those meetings by forming his own advisory committee comprised of his hand-selected employees. Presto! He eliminated the forum and the accountability of the earlier meetings.
In another instance he publicly and insultingly compared two department employees by stating in a published interview that one employees was worth ten of the other. The “other” employee referred to happened to be the union’s chief steward for the assessor’s office.
Mr. Stone has also been no friend to his own mid-level managers. For example, he held out the carrot of pay bonuses based on production—but only if those managers would abandon union membership and instead “serve at the pleasure of the assessor.” After giving up their job security in this manner, those same managers were surprised by pay cuts during the Great Recession.
Still worse is the fact that those managers are now vulnerable and may hesitate to speak truth to Mr. Stone’s power. It is the job of a leader to encourage candid communication and constructive criticism. Instead, Mr. Stone has alienated workers, their unions and his own managers.
Many county employees working in the assessor’s office see Mr. Stone as the primary source of their job dissatisfaction. His overbearing manner and egocentric attitude make it needlessly difficult for employees to engage in their work with their full talents and creativity. Even the best of those employees sometimes find it difficult not to feel discouraged and unmotivated. Many employees who have felt that way retired earlier than they would have, or transferred to other County departments.
In all of this, we, the public, have been the biggest losers. We deserve better than what Mr. Stone has seen fit to provide. This coming June, we can choose better.
David Bethel was a senior appraiser in the Santa Clara County Assessor’s Office before retiring after a 20-year career of public service.