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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Russell Johnson, Ward 7 Bakersfield councilman

Bakersfield City Councilman Russell Johnson filed nomination papers Wednesday to run for Kern County assessor, setting up a contest with Assessor-Recorder employees Jon Lifquist and Lupe Esquivias.

The three-way race is a rare contest for an influential position: leading the agency that sets property valuations for tax purposes.

While the deadline to run for most county offices was last Friday, the assessor's one was extended to Wednesday because current Assessor Jim Fitch chose not to run for re-election.

"Forty years is enough, " Fitch said Wednesday.

Assistant Assessor Tony Ansolabehere also chose not to run. As long as the elections office determines the candidates meet all the requirements, Johnson, Lifquist and Esquivias will make the June ballot.

Johnson, who has no direct experience as an assessor and would have to obtain a temporary appraiser's license to do the job, said he believes taxpayers need an outsider with clear vision to lead the office.

He said Fitch's handling of the politics of his office -- pulling papers for the 2014 race and then deciding not to run at the last minute -- makes him suspicious of the current assessor's motives.

"It gives the appearance that he is trying to create a hand-picked successor and that just doesn't sit well with me, " Johnson said. "At the end of the day, the voters need to ensure that we have a process where we have an election and they get to choose."

Fitch cheered the decisions by all of the candidates to put forward their names.

"If somebody has an interest in being assessor, they should file -- even if there is an incumbent, " Fitch said.

But Fitch said Johnson's candidacy reminds him of his first assessor's race when he faced career politician Trice Harvey.

"Everybody likes Trice, " Fitch said of the former assemblyman, but voters understood the assessor's job is a professional, not a political, post.

Harvey didn't have any of the professional skills to do the job and neither does Johnson, Fitch said.

If Johnson wins, Fitch said, "He's going to have to hire somebody to do the job."

Johnson admitted he would face a learning curve if elected.

But he said he has plenty of experience in Kern County government from his former job as chief of staff for Supervisor Mike Maggard, and has had some experience in assessment review in his current job as a public affairs, community relations and political consultant.

"There may be a little more to learn, but I'm up to the challenge, " he said.

What the office really needs, he said, is an independent set of eyes and a willingness to see if changes need to be made in how the assessor's office handles things.

Lifquist, chief appraiser for the assessor-recorder's office, said he worked his way up through the ranks and has expertise in real estate appraisal.

He moved into management and helped lead the department’s residential division through the re-assessment of tens of thousands of properties during the housing market crash.

Lifquist said he expected to have opponents in the race, though he was surprised by Johnson’s participation.

“He has some political experience. I don’t know how that translates into running the Assessor’s office,” which handles billions of dollars in property assessments each year, Lifquist said.

Esquivias, he said, is a very personable, low-level appraiser.

Esquivias, on Thursday, sent an e-mail to a reporter outlining his qualifications for the position.

"I have been with the Assessor's Office for a little more than seven years and have moved up the ranks to a mid-level appraiser," he wrote. "I have hundreds of hours of training under my belt provided by the State Board Of Equalization and years of hands-on experience valuing various property types."

He too spoke out against politicians running for office.

"I agree with Mr. Fitch, the assessor's job is not a political post and requires substantial expertise in proven appraisal techniques for property tax purposes," he wrote.

Kern County Elections chief Karen Rhea said Johnson couldn’t serve as both assessor and city councilman because it would pose a conflict of interest.

Johnson represents Ward 7, which generally covers south Bakersfield. His council term is up this November; the time period to file papers to run for council opens in mid-July.

Because Bakersfield City Council elections are not held until November, Rhea said Johnson could still run for re-election to the Ward 7 seat If he doesn’t survive the June primary race for assessor.

Local Republican consultant Stan Harper said Johnson is clearly eyeing higher office.

“Russell, in my opinion, is looking to move up. He has an interest and he has the ability to raise money,” Harper said.

He said Johnson could also benefit from having two other candidates coming from inside the Assessor-Recorder’s office.

“If you have two people inside the department and an outsider — the insiders will split the vote,” Harper said.