Union Democrat staff

Given the board and audience reaction last week, you'd think Calaveras County Treasurer Lynette Norfolk has asked for a huge raise.

"Immature," "ludicrous," said supervisors.

"We're more interested in whether the person is honest," added one audience member.

"I'm appalled at it," said another.

But Norfolk was not asking for a raise. Nor was she trying to feather her political nest, as she will retire next year after more than a decade on the job.

What she did ask was that Calaveras County supervisors adopt qualifications and continuing education requirements for her office.

Those standards - education, experience or certifications in the finance and accounting fields - are spelled out in the California government code.

Their adoption, however, is optional, and supervisors deadlocked 2-2 - meaning the treasurer-tax collector's job will remain open to any Calaveras County voter with a California driver's license.

That puts the county in a minority: Del Norte County Treasurer-Tax Collector Dawn Langston, president of a statewide organization of her counterparts, said most of California county boards have adopted the qualifications.

And 16 tax collectors responding to an online inquiry that Langston made last Thursday each said their counties had adopted the requirements. These included Los Angeles, Fresno, Lake, Kern, Madera, San Bernardino and Tuolumne counties - a wide range both geographically and demographically.

But, said Calaveras County Supervisor Tom Tryon during last week's debate, "I'm very leery of putting conditions on what voters can vote on."

Indeed, a case can be made that anyone should be able to run and that voters who elect a tax collector-treasurer without financial experience "get what they deserve."

At this point, a look at qualifications for office is in order.

There was a time when county sheriffs weren't required to have law-enforcement training or experience. In Tuolumne County, this lack of standards once prompted 16 men to run for sheriff - including a habitual jail inmate who claimed to "know the job from the inside."

As fascinating as this might be, the Legislature didn't want to trifle with public safety and has since required that all California sheriffs have Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification. Likewise, with the rights of both criminals and victims at stake, the state did away with the last of its elected non-lawyer judges more than two decades ago.

County schools superintendents, charged with the education of our children, have long been required to have state administrative credentials.

But what about the men and women who collect and invest billions of dollars in tax revenues for California's 58 counties?

Until the mid-1990s, there were no qualifications for the treasurer-tax collector post. Then, in 1994, Orange County's investment portfolio crashed like a house of cards due to risky, reckless investments by Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert Citron. The county's loss: $1.5 billion.

Citron resigned, later pleaded guilty to six felony charges and was sentenced to a year in jail.

In the wake of the scandal, the Legislature added optional qualifications for the job to the Government Code. Many counties - most of them at the urging of their own treasurer-tax collectors - adopted them.

Ironically, Citron himself met the requirements when first elected in 1970. By that time he had been an assistant in the office long enough to meet the experience standards.

So, obviously, qualification and continued education requirements alone are no guarantee that an unscrupulous politician won't violate the public's trust.

But just as consumers choose among licensed contractors when looking to build, they should be able to choose among professionals when deciding who will manage the taxes they pay.

And it's not as if the proposed qualifications would drastically shrink the potential candidate field. Norfolk said some 50 certified public accountants practice in Calaveras County, and being a CPA is only one of several ways a treasurer-tax collector candidate can qualify for the job.

Not only that, but there is precedent: Qualifications for the elected auditor-controller's post have been on the Calaveras County books for years.

Certainly the treasurer-tax collector's post deserves as much.