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Endorsement: The race for County Clerk

If you’ve ever voted, paid property taxes or needed a copy of your marriage certificate, you’ve depended upon a firm hand at the controls of the county clerk-recorder-assessor and registrar of voters offices. It’s the county department director with more job titles than people under its jurisdiction who understand what it actually does.

It’s basically the Ginsu knife of local governance – it releases records, issues licenses, assesses property values, runs the local elections and could probably cut through a tin can if you need it to. Well, that is, if a qualified Clerk-Recorder-Assessor (CRA) is leading the way.

With the current county CRA, William Rousseau, retiring, a trio of candidates are vying for the top job in the June 5 primary election: Ray Leonard, a longtime administrator at the CRA offices; Rod Marusic, an assessment process specialist at CRA; and Deva Marie Proto, currently a chief deputy clerk-recorder in the department.

Whomever wins the job will be faced with a variety of upcoming challenges, including the re-assessment of thousands of properties affected by the October wildfires.

As head of the county registrar of voters, the new CRA chief will also oversee the implementation of a new county voting system in 2019 and navigate the waters of such fledgling get-out-the vote initiatives as the Motor Voter Act, a new state law which automatically registers people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license (including pre-registering 16-year-olds), and the Voters Choice Act, which would mail every voter a ballot, expand in-person early voting, and allow voters to cast a ballot from any voting center.

Ray Leonard, 54, has been an administrator at the CRA for 14 years and describes the work the department does in elections, appraisals, certified records and even performing civil marriages as being “at the heart of local government.”

In 2012, Leonard was then-county clerk Janice Atkinson’s top choice to head the ACR when she announced plans to retire with two years left in her term, but the Board of Supervisors ultimately appointed Rousseau, who had run against Atkinson in the 2006 race for the seat and whose 29 years with the county was the longest tenure among the candidates.

Among top priorities, Leonard cites modernizing the voting system, staffing and launching a planned “assessor division” for fire recovery and better engaging staff to keep them onboard for the “continued improvements needed to keep (the) office moving forward.

He told the Index-Tribune he expects his department to play a prominent role in fire recovery, and will be “committed to helping people recover, for however long it may take.”

Deva Marie Proto has worked at the CRA office for nine years, the last five in her current role as one of three assistant department heads, overseeing more than a dozen staff members. Among her accomplishments at the CRA, she cites having implemented a new system that allows faster processing and increased access to public indexes, and just last week her team went live with a new system that allows people to purchase copies of public documents online.

Proto, 36, believes her breadth of experience working on elections, as well as in many capacities within the CRA office – on contracts, budgets, human resources and a host of special projects – makes her the best candidate for the job.

Rod Marusic has 10 years under his belt at the CRA and says the department’s most important responsibilities are to ensure accurate elections while protecting voter data; conducting fair and accurate valuations of properties; and efficiently serving public requests for public records.

He highlights his 20 years in the private sector – as a business owner, inventor, real-estate agent and manager of a “large retail operation” – as giving him the free-market skills needed “to bring some of the private sector views to the public office without sacrifice of service to the public.”

Marusic, 53, describes himself as “a taxpayer advocate” and wants to help property owners “pay their fair share of taxes and no more.”

This year’s CRA race has no “outsider” candidates – and with this office that can be a good thing. The job requirements cross so many civic functions, the learning curve would seem almost insurmountable for a candidate without a deep well of experience in its trenches. Sonoma voters are fortunate to have three candidates as qualified as these.

The June 5 election is a “top-two” primary in which, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will face each other in a November runoff election. We anticipate a runoff.

Leonard and Proto have the range of experience across all levels of the CRA and registrar offices to keep the ship steady as it sails into a future of county fire recovery needs and ambitious voting and registration initiatives. We see big challenges ahead for the departments everyone in Sonoma County depends upon – even if they don’t know it.

We recommend Ray Leonard and Deva Marie Proto.

– Jason Walsh, editor

– John Burns, publisher