GOVERNMENT


THE FOUR-MORE-YEARS CLUB

by Judy Hodgson



Top: Auditor Neil Prince, Coroner Frank Jager, Assessor Ray Jerland.
Bottom: District Attorney Terry Farmer, Tax Collector Steve Strawn, Recorder Carolyn Crnich, Superintendent Louis Bucher


The name of Auditor-Controller Neil Prince will be on the June ballot again this year. He is running unopposed. In fact, he has never drawn a challenger in 25 years in public office.

But it still costs him money.

He is a member of the Four-more-years Club of county officials who are automatically re-elected because they have no challengers. And according to unofficial club rules, the person receiving the lowest number of votes in the primary, which is really the final tally, has to buy lunch for the others.

That's usually Prince.

"It's pretty bad when I can't even get as many votes as the assessor, the coroner or the tax collector," he said with a laugh.

Prince was a certified public accountant for Bean, Stanhope, Storre and Wagner when first appointed auditor in 1973. He said he really doesn't mind his anonymity with the voters. Buying lunch, he said, "is a lot cheaper than running a campaign."

This year there are eight members of the club who are free to concentrate on their county duties instead of campaigning. The newest is Coroner Frank Jager.

"I'm very happy. It saves me time and money," he said in an interview last month.

Jager, appointed coroner in February, said his first few months have been a fast learning experience.

"It's a lot different than I thought. The actual death investigations are handled by the three deputy coroners. My job is a lot of probate, estate processing, time spent locating next of kin," said the former investigator for the District Attorney's Office.

One thing that has surprised him is the number of older people who die alone.

"I come from a very large extended family," he said. "It's very sad and foreign to me to find someone who dies in a hotel room or apartment with no family or friends.

"We had a gentleman you would have thought he was almost homeless." It turned out the man had $220,000 in a bank account and two sons -- one in Alaska and another in Colorado -- who didn't even know each other.

County Assessor Ray Jerland is another unopposed official.

"I am happy to forego the rubber-chicken-dinner-and-pancake-breakfast circuit that goes along with campaigning," he said.

Especially this year with the new computer system being installed.

"The old computer system we use was written in 1977 by an in-house programmer and patched together every time we had changes come along.

"The new one is a great system. Ultimately an appraiser will be able to download information into a laptop computer and take it on site to apply new building costs and revalue property."

Jerland was assistant assessor from 1974-94 when he succeeded Ray Flynn.

"I beat the auditor by a few votes in 1994," he boasted. "I would like to say for the record, it is always a pleasure to be hosted by Mr. Prince."

District Attorney Terry Farmer's re-election campaigns have not always been as smooth sailing as this year. He first took office in 1982, beating incumbent Bernie DePaoli, and faced a tough challenge in 1986 against attorneys Ed Parsons and Mike Mock. He was unopposed in 1990 but was challenged by former Eureka City Attorney David Prendergast in 1994.

"It's extremely gratifying not to be running," he said last month. "It's certainly easier for me personally, but (also) for everyone in the office.

"We are very close-knit. When we win a hard trial, we are all excited. When we lose, we all feel the effect. Having to run for office is a distraction for everyone."

Farmer came to Humboldt County as a deputy district attorney for District Attorney John Buffington, who is retiring this year as superior court judge, and was in private practice from 1978 to 1982.

Farmer, who is suffering from a degenerative neuromuscular disease, said he is more than ready for four more years.

"Don't put me on your track team, but I'm a better lawyer than I ever was. I don't need to have a contested election to get excited about this job.

"Public service is very gratifying. So is having an office that works well -- having good people doing productive work," he said.

Tax Assessor Steve Strawn has only been challenged once since taking office in 1972. That was 1982 and his opponent was Eureka accountant John Fullerton.

"I take it as a sign that people are satisfied with the work we do -- as satisfied as you can be with receiving property tax bills," he said.

Strawn is also immersed this year in trying to get the new computer system on-line.

"We've set a date of January 1999, we hope. The word, hope, is important," he said.

Strawn's duties include managing the county's short- and longer-term investments as well as those for all the schools and special districts throughout the county. Sometimes, he said, that involves moving money from one account to another overnight to obtain the highest interest.

Recorder Carolyn Crnich has drawn high marks from her administrative colleagues for, as one put it, "embracing technology and change."

Crnich was elected in 1990 in a tough race against Carol Jodice to replace Grace Jackson. She ran unopposed in 1994 although she said competition is a good thing.

"During campaigns new ideas are brought forward. It keeps an incumbent from becoming complacent and from having the attitude that they will always have that job," she said.

Crnich pushed forward with computerization of county records including birth and death certificates and property documents.

"I have concentrated on staff training and computers. I try to send as many of my staff for training as possible. There are great workshops every year put on by the county recorders association for examining documents, indexing practices, new state laws."

And away from the world of the county courthouse, Superintendent of Schools Louis Bucher will also be serving four more years.

In 1982 he ran and beat incumbent Bill Rich who had held the post for nine years.

"Since then I have had the good fortune of being unopposed for four terms," he said.

Bucher said he has observed a steady improvement in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores over the last 10 years. And he is pleased with the number of high school seniors taking more rigorous coursework in preparation for college. But he has some concern about what lies ahead for elementary and secondary schools.

"California is now putting in place content and performance standards. Up to this point, each school district has been accountable. That system is giving way to a state system of determining what students must know and be able to do.

"There is nothing wrong with state standards, but I've observed a rather rapid shift to state control. People want schools to produce, but they don't want Washington or Sacramento calling all the shots."

Bucher said he is also concerned about the impact of Proposition 223 on the June ballot.

The initiative proposes to cap administrative expenses at 5 percent and require 95 percent of school funding to be spent on site or in the classroom. But in reality, Bucher said, small districts unable to meet that challenge would be penalized and larger districts such as Los Angeles may ultimately benefit.

Bucher said although county schools are a separate and distinct district, if invited he would be pleased to accept a free lunch from the county auditor after the ballots are counted on June 2.


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