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June 5 primary: Three vie for Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor and elections chief

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While election season often focuses on the races for higher office at the county, state and the nation’s capital, the position that makes one of the biggest impacts on Sonoma residents is that of county Clerk-Recorder-Assessor and elections chief – a four-in-one gig charged with handling county elections, assessing property values, and issuing licenses and requests for public records.

If you’ve ever voted, owned a house, or needed a birth certificate to get your kid a passport – you’ve relied on an efficiently run county clerk-recorder-assessor and election department.

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.

Whoever 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.

And when all three candidates stress they want to boost morale at the CRA offices, one suspects team spirit may also need an upgrade.

Ray Leonard 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.”

Leonard, 54, had originally declined to run for the job when Rousseau announced his retirement late last year, but said he was drawn into the race after being encouraged by colleagues within the department and other supporters around the county.

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.

Leonard says his priorities will be in 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.”

Recognizing the important role the department plays during fire recovery, Leonard says he is “committed to helping people recover, for however long it may take.”

While he says the CRA is “central to local government,” he says it can still improve its efficiency. He says he was “mentored” by such prior county clerks as Eeve Lewis and Janice Atkinson Morrissey and credits them with helping him find his “passion” for the department and “love for the elections process.”

“I want to continue their tradition of dedicated, friendly public service,” said Leonard.

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. Among her accomplishments at the CRA, she cites having implemented a new system that allows faster processing and increased access to public indexes, and she says they’re about to go live on a system that will allow people to purchase copies of public documents online.

She’s also proud of the efforts her office put forth during the October fires, as they staffed an offsite assistance center for several weeks, issuing more than 4,000 vital records free of charge and nearly as many free copies of property deeds. She expects the fire recovery to be a particular challenge for the office. “Going forward, there will be more work as the recovery process continues,” she said.

Proto, 36, blames the registrar’s at-times slow release of election results – Sonoma County is often among the last jurisdictions to report – on aging machines, outdated software and the design of the registrar of voters’ website. She says she plans on exploring better website options if she were lead the department.

Proto describes the office as “the foundation of our economy and democracy.”

“Our office provides services used by everyone and we touch people at every stage of their lives – birth, death, marriage, owning a home, opening a business and voting,” she said.

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 cites 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.”

Among his priorities, he lists increasing transparency. “I want to hold meetings and explain to (county residents) how these (property tax) codes really work,” said Marusic. “I want to show to everybody what this office is all about and how we can help.”

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

To view an April 19 candidates forum put on by the Sonoma County League of Women Voters, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_1HNS1STnQ

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.