In January of 2011, Chris Albertson was sworn in as a member of the Petaluma City Council. But public records show that for 2011, Albertson took a California homeowners’ property tax exemption for a house in Santa Barbara, 360 miles south of City Hall.
Here’s the problem with that.
Candidates for city council must be registered to vote at a Petaluma address, according to Sonoma County Assessor and Registrar of Voters Janice Atkinson. When I got in touch with her, she affirmed that “it is a requirement that a person register at the address that s/he considers to be her domicile.”
“Domicile” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “place of a person’s permanent residence, which he or she leaves only temporarily.”
So is it kosher for Albertson to take a tax deduction for his “principal place of residence” in Santa Barbara while holding elective office in Petaluma? Can he have one domicile for tax purposes, and another domicile for voting?
Albertson rents a home in Petaluma. But public records show that he and his spouse, Marilyn Albertson, are joined in a living trust that owns 2211 Sycamore Canyon Road in Santa Barbara. They’ve owned the house for decades. In 2011, as in prior years, the Albertsons declared to the Santa Barbara County Assessor that they are eligible for the homeowner’s tax deduction because the house is their “principal place of residence.” The exemption knocks $7,000 off the assessed value of the home for property tax purposes. (Currently, Zillow estimates the house to be worth $1.22 million.)
I asked Atkinson to clarify the issue. She explained that a person could “accept employment in one county and to avoid commuting establish a residence in another county. However, this person considers the second residence to be temporary. S/he has every intention of returning to his or her original residence, and continues to consider it to be his or her domicile.”
It makes sense that Albertson might still consider Santa Barbara home—he served with the Santa Barbara Fire Department for 28 years. But in 2001, he was hired as the fire chief of Petaluma, where, according to his campaign biography, “Marilyn and I made many lasting friendships.” Albertson retired as chief in 2008 on a public pension, and he successfully ran for city council two years later.
(During Albertson’s campaign, supported by the Argus-Courier and the North Coast Builders Exchange, he favored making public employee retirement plans less cushy for public employees hired in the future, while safeguarding benefits for currently retired public employees. But we digress. Back to Atkinson.)
Atkinson says that although her office does not check the authenticity of voter registrations, “If there is sufficient evidence to cause concern that someone has registered to vote at an address that is not his or her domicile, the Registrar of Voters may forward information to the Secretary of State’s Voter Fraud Division for investigation.” Of course, while Albertson’s domicile for voter registration may be perfectly acceptable for holding elective office, there does remain the thorny question of domicile for the tax deduction. Or vice versa.
Atkinson says that in California statutes, “the concept of domicile is somewhat fuzzy, but it needs to be, as there are many different situations. I hope this clarifies the situation.”
Oxford defines clarity as “lack of ambiguity.” So, I called upon Albertson himself, hoping for some unambiguous clarification.
He acknowledged that his family does indeed take the tax deduction in Santa Barbara. “My wife and I have a long distance relationship,” he explained. “She lives in Santa Barbara, and I live in Petaluma, and it’s none of your business.”
Or is it?