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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Baker’s attitude less than winning

The Spokesman-Review

County Assessor Ralph Baker lost the only contested election campaign he waged in Spokane County. That was in 2002, when he ran for auditor. Since then, however, the road to office and influence has been wide, smooth and unimpeded.

Maybe, therefore, complacency explains the strangely insensitive attitude he has adopted toward the public.

Telling county personnel to spend less time with citizens who come into the courthouse office, removing chairs so members of the public will find waiting for service less comfortable, telling employees to stop helping senior citizens fill out property tax exemption forms — these are not the actions of a politician with an eye on the ballot box.

Some history: Duane Sommers was elected assessor in 2002, the same year Baker ran unsuccessfully against Auditor Vicky Dalton. Sommers then hired Baker as his executive assistant. Sommers quit midway through his term, leaving Baker as a likely candidate to fill the vacancy. Indeed, Baker’s name was the only one county Republicans submitted to the Board of County Commissioners for the appointment. And when he had to run last fall for the fourth and final year of the four-year term, no one ran against him.

Although Baker said last July that one of his aims was to “be a good listener to the people I serve,” he also conceded that he dislikes getting calls from people angry over their property assessments. Contradictions like that nourish public cynicism about politics and politicians.

To his credit, Baker says he wants to save the taxpayers money and to provide more efficient service by emphasizing modernization and technology in the assessor’s office. That can be achieved through greater use of e-mail and voice mail, and less time holding the hands of people who just learned their property valuation jumped 18 percent, or more, and want to get answers quickly and face to face.

In the midst of an escalating real estate market, a lot of people find themselves in that situation. So many, in fact, that when the assessor’s office started rerouting calls on the subject to the Board of Equalization, it buried that agency in complaints meant for the assessors.

If Baker really wants the public to gain the efficiencies of doing its business with him on line, there are a couple of philosophies to choose from. One is to make it so satisfying and effective that patrons do it that way by choice. The other, apparently the one he has chosen, is to make the in-person experience so disagreeable that citizens are forced to resort to e-mail and answering machine messages.

The citizens have a choice, too. Do it Baker’s way, or bring a copy of War and Peace to read while they gather cobwebs at the Courthouse. Of course, they’ll have another choice to make next fall, when Baker has to run for re-election.