It started innocently enough with a question at the Alameda Democratic Club last month about whether the four candidates for Alameda County assessor would favor greater oversight of corporations like Chevron in Contra Costa County, which in the past, have attempted to lower assessments of the Richmond Refinery by way of creative accounting.
Jim Johnson, an employee at the Alameda County assessor’s office seeking to replace the retiring Ron Thomson, gave a response that was more informational than opinionated, and said roughly one-quarter of the top 800 properties in the county require an audit every two years. In passing he mentioned large, complex accounts such as a plethora of somewhat secret cloud centers in Alameda County, in addition, to the Tesla plant in Fremont.
The mere mention of Tesla seemed to hang in the air for the other candidates, who referenced the electric car giant in their remarks until Phong La, a candidate who has amassed a large number of endorsements from well-known local officials, took it further, adding a political edge to a position intended to be unbias.
“Tesla would be my number one company. They didn’t allow their employees to unionize. They brought in workers from Eastern Europe, paid them 30 cents an hour, got them injured. When they bought that building it was pretty much vacant,” said La, referring to the sprawling auto plant in Fremont previously occupied by Nummi, which closed the factory in 2010.
“They’ve put in a lot of equipment since. I appreciate the fact they’ve been hiring a lot of people, but they still need to treat their people right and still have to pay their fair share,” he added.
Another candidate for the assessor’s seat, John Weed, a member of the Alameda County Water Board and former Ohlone Community College board member, did not directly address the mention of Tesla, but said the role of the office is to remain impartial when assessing county properties. “Staying on top of the various changes and complexities of the assessments, and applying the rules equitably can be an extraordinary challenge,” said Weed.
Kevin Lopez, a second candidate in the race who currently works at the county assessor’s office, echoed La’s statement toward Tesla, , in addition to Apple’s data centers and properties at the Port of Oakland. “There’s high tax dollars there, he said.
But La’s comments have reverberated through the campaign. His opponents have used the perceived threat against Tesla as a potential fundraising tool and hammer to procure political endorsements, particularly in Fremont and surrounding Southern Alameda County, where elected officials view Tesla as a creator of high-paying job as well as bask in the worldwide prestige afforded by the admired tech company.
In an interview later, La said he wrongly conflated his comments in Alameda about Tesla’s labor issues and the role of assessor. “There is no political litmus test for assessments. Everything else was about talking politics. I should have prefaced it better by saying, ‘Here’s two separate issues: Here’s my opinion on one issue and here’s how this issue is dealt with at the assessor’s office,” said La.
He maintains, though, that Tesla’s improvements at the Fremont property need to be fully reviewed. “The assessment for that equipment needs to take place because it’s all in Alameda County. I’m certain there’s going to be disagreement between the assessor’s office and Tesla. They’re going to want to lower their assessment as much as possible.
“If you tear down your house and build up a new house, it’s not going to be the same assessment as when you first bought it because it’s a totally new property. What has Tesla done to that property and does it trigger a re-assessment?”
To do the job, La said the assessor’s office will need extra training for analyzing new tech firms in the county, especially those, like Tesla, that rely on new types of robotic equipment.
The four-person assessor’s race is unlikely to produce a winner following the June 5 primary due to the number of candidates. Alameda County races operate under a run-off system. So if none of the primary candidates attract a majority of the vote in June, the top two finishers will advance to the November General Election.
Wow, a great visual of money and politics at play. A multi-millionaire business man Phong La walks into the democratic establishment and gets high profile endorsements. Phong La is a person with virtually no experience in the world of assessments except that he owns loads of properties. Jim Johnson has worked in the Assessors office for 20 years and knows key facets of assessments like appraisal, permits, exclusions, exemptions, supplemental assessments etc.
I dont even know why Assessor is an elected position. Seriously you need to know stuff for this job. It is aweful that like of Phong La vie for this position to get exposure to advance their political ambitions. I hope that people like Bernie supporters realize this and vote against Phong La.
Leadership requires character and Johnson is a carpet bagging opportunist who has exaggerated his experience and worked behind the scenes to hire his son and other friends of his family into the Assessors Office. He is exactly what alameda county residents DO NOT need. Ask anyone in our office that is not afraid to tell the truth.
Political patronage is and has been alive and well in the Assessors office now. It would extend to virtually every level of the office if carpet bagger Jim is elected
Electing Phong La would turn the Assessor’s Office into a political patronage job.
That office is not broken. It is run efficiently. Taxpayers are treated respectfully and fairly. The County’ property tax revenue base is protected.
Len Raphael, CPA
“—In firstname.lastname@example.org, wrote :
I was informed to contact you by a member of the Glenview Neighborhood Association since I work at the Assessor’s Office and am also working on Jim Johnson’s campaign. I also recently spoke at the GNA monthly meeting about him.
The vast majority of management at the Assessor’s Office support Jim Johnson because he is the most qualified of all the four candidates running. He has 26 years in the Assessor’s Office and has been the Chief of Assessment Services for 10 years. This is the highest of two civil service positions in the Assessor’s Office, where he manages more than half the units in the department: Assessee Services, Appraisal Support, Appraisal Resources, Assessment Roll, Exemptions, IT, Mapping, Records. He also works closely with the Chief of Appraisal and the Business Personal Property manager.
Jim is not a politician at all. He has never run a political campaign before. He is primarily a dedicated Alameda County civil servant. He was asked to run this year by the current Assessor because the Chief Deputy, Brian Hitomi, changed his mind about running. Brian was initially the one being trained to take over and run for Assessor. Jim did not have enough time to prepare for his own campaign. He also does not have the resources that Phong La has access to.
The least qualified of the four candidates to be an assessor is Democratic Party endorsed Phong La. Phong is a Democratic Party activist who has been preparing to run for office for quite some time. He has a lot of Democratic Party connections. I have friends in the Asian community who also support Phong.
SEIU endorsed Phong La. They did not endorse the only SEIU member also running for Assessor. That is Kevin Lopez, a non management appraiser in our department. SEIU didn’t even ask if Phong ‘ s own employees are in a union.
Phong is a millionaire commercial real estate investor landlord and lawyer who owns more properties than most people, including people in the Assessor’s Office. He is also the owner and manager for a medical manufacturing company. His various properties are worth about $20 million. He has corporate tenants which include Trader Joe’s, Michael’s, H&R Block, Weight Watchers, TJMaxx and others. He even owns a foreclosed property that is an investment property. He was not completely forthcoming about these details. He submitted his completed list of properties and tenants to the Registrar of Voters right before absentee ballots went out even though the ROV kept requesting Phong to turn them in three weeks before that.
The Democratic clubs and the media did not bring up his property financial interests. Even though none of Phong’s properties are illegal to own his financial interests could be a potential conflict of interest for the Assessor’s Office.
Phong does not work with the Assessor’s Office as he implies. His main interaction has been with the Assessment Appeals Board, which is located under the Clerk of the Board’s department. The person who interacted with Phong from the Assessor’s Office was an Assessor’s rep at his appeal hearings. Phong has spent his time trying to get his commercial property values lowered so he can pay less taxes. Candidate John Weed, who is on the Assessment Appeals Board, knows Phong there from the hearings.
Phong really doesn’t know State laws and County civil service rules that govern the Assessor’s Office. The three candidates (Johnson, Lopez, and Weed) have had to correct him at the various debates. Phong has a huge learning curve to catch up with all aspects in the department. There are three volumes of laws he has to become familiar with. Two of those volumes are quite thick.
Many of his campaign statements are misleading or inaccurate. He would not be able to follow through with many of his campaign promises because they would create liability issues for the Assessor’s Office. The Office also does not have the funds to do them. The Assessor’s Office is trying to restore the staff that have been cut in previous years by the Board of Supervisors.
Phong La is being endorsed for political reasons, not because he actually knows how to run the Assessor’s Office. Most of his endorsers know little about the Assessor’s Office and what we actually do on a daily basis.
This concerns the managers and staff. We do not want a department head with no actual government managerial experience working in the Assessor’s Office. Staff do not want to train a new boss at that level. This is a waste of our tax dollars.
I have been the secretary to two Assessors and four Chief Deputies. I would much rather have Jim Johnson as my boss, because he knows what is required to be the Assessor. I wouldn’t have to train him.
The position of Assessor is a nonpartisan administrative position that requires specific knowledge and experience. It is not a position that makes State or County laws and policies. The Assessor has to make sure the office complies with the State laws, which we do. In fact, Alameda County Assessor’s Office has among the highest ratings in the State among 58 counties for complying with what is required. State Board of Equalization audits this department every five years, not the County Board of Supervisors. We have less than 1% assessment appeals in Alameda County. That is quite low statewide.
I hope you will vote for Jim Johnson if you have not voted yet. For the Assessor’s Office, actual working knowledge and experience is much more important to get the job done than simply making campaign promises.
Kit Vaq on Park Blvd.”