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It’s Crider as county's new auditor

Oak Harbor City Councilwoman Sheilah Crider will shed one title for another following her appointment Wednesday night to the vacant Island County Auditor post.

The seemingly simple task of selecting a replacement auditor turned out to be a tad more soap operatic than expected.

Finding three applicants was the first hurdle. Initially, Eric Gerber, Crider’s colleague on the City Council, and Art Hyland, hoping to reclaim the position he held from 1990 to 1997, joined county employee Susan Engstrom in a bid for the spot.

The Island County Republican Party was set to interview the trio of applicants on Jan. 5, but was forced to cancel the meeting after Gerber pulled his name from the short list. Since the law requires three candidates, GOP Chairwoman Kathy Jones scoured the county in search of a third. Langley resident Andrew Loehr ultimately joined the competition and interviews were scheduled for Tuesday.

Where a shortage once existed, Crider suddenly created a surplus of applicants when she came in just under the gun and lofted her chapeau into the ring.

The Republican Party interviewed each candidate as planned Tuesday night in Oak Harbor. When the dust finally settled and the votes were cast, Hyland was out, a shocking outcome as he was the only one of the four with actual auditor experience. Crider was the party’s first pick, followed by Loehr and Engstrom, respectively.

“I was surprised,” Hyland said Wednesday. “This caught me blind-sided.” He had lived with the assumption he’d make the final three but somehow the vote went against him.

“Those are the kind of things that happen in politics,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted.”

Of the group of three, Hyland agreed Crider was the best choice. “She’s clearly the most capable to be able to run something,” he said. The former auditor could still pursue the position when it comes up for election in November. He said he isn’t ruling out that possibility.

The three names selected by the party were submitted to the Board of Island County Commissioners, which held its own public interview Wednesday night and agreed with the GOP’s recommendation.

The interview process, however, was almost derailed before it even began when at the beginning of the meeting, Engstrom submitted a letter to the board stating that she was removing her name for family reasons.

“My parents have to come first,” said the Permit Center manager in the county’s Camano Annex.

Commissioner John Dean, a fellow Camano resident, had only a moment to process the bombshell before action had to be taken.

“I had talked to Sue earlier in the day and I thought all was well,” he said. “Commissioner Bakke may have had a clue about it, since he is closer to the island’s Republican party and has worked with Sue for years. But I learned about her last-minute decision from I-COM Executive Director Tom Shaughnessy, who gave me a head’s up just a minute before we convened.”

Having worked with Engstrom during office hours on Camano, Dean singled her out as an exemplary employee and impressive person. Although the commissioner was disappointed about her withdrawal, he empathized with her situation and respected the decision.

“I also know what it is like to have older family members in the final stages of life,” he said. “I lost two over the holidays and another is on her way this week. So I totally understand why Sue decided to withdraw. It is my hope Sue will stay with the county for many more years and watch for new opportunities and challenges, including running for political office.”

With only two candidates once again, the words “full circle” began to describe the series of events. Rather than start the process over, Commissioner Mac McDowell said the board would not officially accept Engstrom’s letter, keeping her in the running, if only to maintain a legal selection process.

“By not accepting it, we can still function as if we have three in front of us,” McDowell said.

Crider was the first to be interviewed, confidently fielding questions and heaping praise on the “incredible” employees in the auditor’s office. A member of the Island County Planning Commission who has also sat on Oak Harbor’s Auditing and Finance Committee for the last five years, Crider said her communication skills and lack of any agenda would serve her well in the position.

“I want the job,” she emphatically told the commissioners. “I’m prepared to work for it and work in it.”

As a somewhat awkward formality, Engstrom next went before the board. And then only Loehr remained.

The Langley resident also interviewed well, citing his interpersonal communication skills as a valuable asset. His responses, while articulate, lacked the specificity of Crider’s. He also said his only auditing experience had been with profit/loss statements during his long and successful career as a businessman. But he was immediately available for the job and, like Crider, reportedly carried no agendas.

“I can go to work tomorrow,” Loehr said.

The rumor mill kicked into high gear Wednesday after Hyland failed to make the cut. Jones said she believed the votes of the more than 20 elected and appointed precinct committee officers reflected a collective desire to focus on the future, effectively negating any edge the former auditor’s experience may have granted him.

“I think the vote was representative of who the PCOs thought would serve the future of county government best,” said the party chair. “They were looking toward the future rather than reaching into the past for direction.”

The PCOs were particularly impressed with Crider’s potential, Jones said.

“Her government experience, her commitment to excellent public service, her promise to be fiscally conservative and her willingness to run a vigorous reelection campaign in November all were compelling arguments for her to be the first choice,” she said.

Dean agreed that Crider’s experience spoke for itself.

“Island County is fortunate to be the beneficiary of the dedication and level-headed, no-nonsense approach of Sheilah Crider, who has been a stalwart member of the Island County Planning Commission and Oak Harbor City Council,” the commissioner said. “She will do a masterful job, and I look forward to working with her.”

Loehr emerged as the next best choice because of his charismatic oratorical skills, as well as his business acumen and the fresh perspective he would provide.

“He also has a successful history of managing multi-million dollar budgets and staffs of people larger than our auditor’s department,” Jones said Wednesday afternoon.

Engstrom, who many people thought would be a frontrunner, was described by Jones as a talented woman skilled in working efficiently in the county government environment.

Crider will replace Suzanne Sinclair, who left at the end of December after accepting a job in New York state. Her new salary falls a few thousand dollars short of $70,000, adding a financial incentive for the career change. She will wave goodbye to the city’s $562 a month plus benefits.

Sinclair was the third resignation to affect Island County in just over six months. Longtime County Commissioner Mike Shelton took a job in Olympia last summer and State Rep. Chris Strow, R-Freeland, recently vacated his seat to spend more time with family.

“This is the third appointment we’ve had to deal with, including replacing Mike Shelton and Rep. Chris Strow, so I sure hope things calm down for awhile, long enough, at least to have some elections,” Dean said.

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