Christina Wynn helped break the Sacramento County Assessor's Office. She's the best hope to fix it

Beatrice Hildebrand joined a long line of Sacramento County residents to pay her property taxes in December.
Beatrice Hildebrand joined a long line of Sacramento County residents to pay her property taxes in December. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In most election years, the last place voters would expect to find high-stakes political drama is the Sacramento County Assessor’s Office — a government agency known for its staid duty of appraising residential and commercial property to determine tax bills.

But the increasingly testy race for county assessor is changing all of that.

Real estate agent Kate Van Buren is vying to unseat Christina Wynn, who was appointed last year after her predecessor, Kathleen Kelleher, quit under a cloud of controversy.

The campaign has been ugly in the extreme. More than anything, it has been dominated by a county-led investigation into the assessor's office, examining 78 allegations of fraud, workplace harassment, retaliation, sweetheart deals involving undervalued appraisals of managers’ properties, inappropriate extracurricular activities among employees, and preferential treatment.

The allegations were serious enough that we decided to withhold our endorsement in this race until the findings were made public. On Thursday, mere days before the June 5 primary, the county finally did so at our prodding.

According to investigators, Wynn violated no policies and committed no crimes in her time as assessor, and so she gets our endorsement because she is more qualified than Van Buren to do the job. But our endorsement is very much a tepid one.

If elected, Wynn needs to make good on her promise to undergo management training and bring in professional counselors to help boost morale among employees. Because what’s also clear from the county’s findings is that the assessor’s office is dangerously dysfunctional. Employees are at each other’s throats and airing their grievances on social media.

It’s deeply troubling that this is the third investigation the county has opened into the office in the past two years, in addition to a separate inquiry by the state Board of Equalization.

Based on the county’s latest investigation, many of the problems started under the poor management of Kelleher. Last year, The Bee found that, from 2008 until 2012, she and former Assistant Assessor John Solie received significantly lower valuations for residential property than adjacent property owners did, though the homes were around the same size and age. Kelleher denied the allegation, but rumors persisted.

Employees accused Kelleher of causing employees to have physical ailments, including stress and a heart attack. And other staffers accused Wynn of letting Kelleher access a county computer after she had quit — a claim the county substantiated in its latest investigation, even though Kelleher did not change county records

Van Buren, a Realtor for 14 years in Sacramento and Nevada counties, has clearly capitalized on the anger and distrust running rampant in the assessor's office. She is promising to be more transparent with employees and taxpayers, focus on "collaboration" and make the office more "efficient." But her plans lack specifics.

Wynn, on the other hand, has rolled out additional security features that ensure any changes to the records of a property owned by an employee is flagged, and that multiple people must be in the process. She also is conducting regular audits of records in the county database.

Moving forward, Wynn is preparing for the next economic downturn by pursuing the purchase of mapping software to make it easier to do more work with fewer employees and she's assessing how the coming crush of appraising commercial cannabis properties will affect the office's workflow.

Wynn is confident in her good ideas. Now her employees, and county taxpayers, have to be confident, too.