Elections for county assessor rarely get much attention, and those elected to that office typically don’t seek political limelight.
This year is different: The Stanislaus County assessor’s race is among the hottest on the ballot, and voters will choose between two candidates with very different backgrounds and views.
The current assessor, Don Gaekle, was appointed to the post in the fall after the previous official resigned. Gaekle has 27 years of experience assessing properties, but he hasn’t run for public office before and rarely has been in the public eye.
Challenging him is Amy Bublak, a soon-to-retire Modesto police officer who is on the Turlock City Council. Bublak has no experience with assessments, and she’s been in trouble recently with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission regarding one of her previous campaigns.
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At stake in this election are the annual assessments of 178,000 Stanislaus properties worth more than $35 billion. The value determinations made by the Assessor’s Office are the basis for property taxes, which landowners must pay annually to support state and local government agencies and schools.
Whoever gets elected will manage a 54-person staff and earn more than $148,366 per year.
Both candidates want the post bad enough to be bankrolling the bulk of their own campaigns. Bublak expects to spend more than $50,000, and Gaekle up to $35,000. They’ve both hired campaign consultants and are peppering the county with their signs.
The winner will be picked June 3, with no need for a November runoff.
“The assessor’s job is not political at all and it shouldn’t be political,” said Gaekle, 57, who has lived in Modesto most of his life. “It’s really not a figurehead job.”
To be a competent assessor, Gaekle contends, requires in-depth knowledge of California’s revenue and taxation codes and constitution: “You need to be able to speak the technical language your professional staff speaks, so you can lead.”
Unlike legislative bodies – such as city councils – that can enact new laws, Gaekle said assessors are not supposed to make up their own rules.
“Everything we do is regulated. ... and our job is to enforce the law the way it is,” not try to change it, Gaekle said.
Gaekle worked his way up through the Assessor’s Office ranks, starting as an appraiser, then a supervising appraiser and assistant assessor. He was appointed to the top post by the county Board of Supervisors after Assessor David Cogdill Sr.’s resignation.
Cogdill and Stanislaus’ previous two assessors, Doug Harms and Mike DeFerrari, endorse Gaekle’s election.
When it comes to qualifications, Bublak sees the Assessor’s Office differently. “I’ve always been able to see the big vision,” Bublak said. “I’m not taking a job. I’m taking a leadership role.”
Bublak has been a police officer for 21 years, but she’s planning to retire in January when she turns 50. That coincides with the start of the next assessor’s term. Before deciding two months ago to run for the countywide post, Bublak said, she considered other political offices.
“This one was the best fit for me,” said Bublak, explaining why she chose to campaign for assessor. She cited her five years on Turlock’s council and her previous years as a planning commissioner as having helped prepare her for it.
“I want to represent taxpayers” and routinely meet with constituents, Bublak said. “I’m a new, fresh vision.”
Bublak thinks the assessor should be more visible in the community, and she wants to solicit ideas from the public on ways to improve how the office is managed. “I’m always trying to make something better,” Bublak said. “There are always ways to make it more efficient ... so there’s not duplication of effort.”
Bublak did not specify what needs to be improved, nor what is being inefficiently managed now, other than to promise to protect Proposition 13.
When it comes to knowledge of property tax codes and assessment regulation, Bublak said: “I’ll learn them, but I don’t need to know them all.”
Beyond her role on the Turlock council, Bublak’s only management experience came while supervising 12 police officers as an acting sergeant. That was before she left the Richmond Police Department in 2005. She is confident, however, that she is qualified to manage the 54 staff members at the Assessor’s Office.
“I’m not going to run for an office I don’t think I could handle,” Bublak said.
California law requires county assessors to obtain an appraiser’s certificate issued by the State Board of Equalization. Bublak doesn’t have that yet, but she promised to get one by the required deadline.
Gaekle said he earned that certification in 1986, and has since obtained an advanced certificate of appraisal.
“The public deserves experience,” Gaekle stressed. “I want to make sure the public continues to get fair, accurate and timely assessments.”
Gaekle said he uses his expertise to advise his staff members on technical aspects of tax law and assessment standards. “But I try not to get involved in individual assessments,” he said, noting how important it is for the assessor not to show favoritism. “You have to have the integrity to say ‘no’ to anyone if the facts and the law require it.”
Bublak also describes herself as “an ethical and moral person.”
The Fair Political Practices Commission, however, has determined there is probable cause to believe Bublak and her husband, Milton Richards, committed 13 violations of the Political Reform Act during her 2008 council election.
Bublak maintains she did nothing wrong during that campaign, but she declined to discuss details of the case.
“My husband and I have fought it for 51/2 years, and we cannot wait for the moment they exonerate us,” Bublak said.
Bublak said she also was not to blame for the 2009 controversy involving solicitations that promised unspecified “special benefits” to donors who would contribute $2,000 or more to her campaign.
“I just hired somebody to raise some money for me,” Bublak said, noting that she did not pick the phrasing. “I meant nothing by it. ... My intentions were not to act like some dirty politician.”
Gaekle, meanwhile, said his biggest campaign contributor is his mother, and he hasn’t accepted “any big contributions from businesses.”