Sonoma County has a new clerk-recorder-assessor. Perhaps you saw the photo of Bill Rousseau taking his oath of office.
Don't fret if you can't remember voting for a new county clerk in last month's election. You didn't.
Once again, when a top county elective position came open, the voters got cut out.
Rousseau was appointed by the Board of Supervisors after Janice Atkinson resigned with more than two years remaining in her term. A year ago, the supervisors chose an auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector to succeed Rod Dole, who quit less than a month after being sworn in for a seventh term.
We don't questions Rousseau's qualifications: 29 years of county service, the last 10 supervising property tax assessments. What disturbs us is the pattern of officials quitting jobs they asked for, then trying to anoint successors without the inconvenience of an election.
An endorsement is fine, but that smacks of patronage.
It didn't work out for Atkinson or Dole. The supervisors passed over their choices in favor of Rousseau and David E. Sundstrom, who will enjoy the advantages of incumbency should they run in 2014.
It's little better when insiders pressure potential candidates to drop out, as happened two years ago when retiring Sheriff Bill Cogbill helped clear the field for Steve Freitas (much as Cogbill's predecessor had done for him eight years earlier).
Incumbency is an enormous advantage, even more so for offices that appear near the bottom of the ballot and don't generate many headlines between elections.
Sonoma County has benefited from spirited campaigns for supervisor and district attorney in recent years. Voters were able to size up the candidates, judge the performance of officeholders and choose their representatives.
There hasn't been a contested election for Sonoma County sheriff since 1990, and incumbents in the other countywide offices are seldom challenged. Atkinson, for example, defeated Rousseau when the clerk's post was last vacant in 2006 and ran unopposed in 2010. Dole was challenged just once after he was appointed in 1985.
Voters chose eight countywide officeholders as recently as 1994. They now choose just five, with many once independent functions combined in the offices of Rousseau and Sundstrom. Their responsibilities range from running elections and assessing property to keeping the books and managing debt for the county and local school districts. They should be accountable to the voters.
In August, the supervisors opted against asking voters to convert Sundstrom's job to an appointed post. "I'm not sure this sends the right message to voters," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said at the time. The recent rejection of district elections by Santa Rosa voters suggests Carrillo was right; people value a wide range of choices for local government.
It's inevitable that some officeholders will be forced to resign due by illness or another unforeseen circumstance, and a special election usually isn't cost-effective. But early resignations are becoming a habit in this county, and we plan to ask future candidates this question, "If you're elected, will you finish your term?" We'll let you know what they say.
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