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County clerk fires veteran chief deputy

The recent firing of a long-time deputy clerk in the Island County Clerk’s office has stirred some bad blood and led to a grass-roots campaign to elect the dismissed worker to the position of the woman who axed her.

Chief deputy clerk Sharon Franzen, a 22-year veteran worker in the clerk’s office, was told Aug. 19 to clear out her desk by County Clerk Jane Koetje, who is running unopposed as an appointed incumbent in the November election. Franzen, who had four years to go until retirement, said she was stunned by the sudden dismissal.

“I was shocked,” she said Wednesday. “That’s the word I used with her, too. Shocked. I’m still processing all of this.”

Beyond the suddenness of it, the timing of Koetje’s decision to fire her chief deputy clerk has been called into question, both by Franzen and citizens who claim to support her. At issue is the fact that Koetje, who was appointed clerk late last year after the resignation of Marilee Black, canned Franzen well after the July 31 deadline for filing to run for Island County office; this effectively eliminates any chance Franzen may have had to make a bid for Koetje’s position in the November election.

“I believe the timing was taken into consideration by her,” Franzen said, though she’s unwilling to go into length about this. Of course, the official reason for the dismissal tells a different story.

According to Franzen, a memo about her dismissal from Koetje “implied that I was not loyal, and that I was unable to complete projects on time.”

Franzen said she “totally did not agree” with Koetje’s assessment, and told the clerk as much when she was told to clear out. “She said it was not discussable,” Franzen said. “Of course, I disagreed, and at the time, I just wanted to discuss it with her.”

As to whether she would have run against Koetje had she been let go before the filing deadline, Franzen said she’s not sure. “That’s a very huge question, and I don’t have an answer,” she said. Franzen did say, however, that she fully intended on finishing out her 4 years in the office before retiring.

Koetje on Wednesday said she doesn’t discuss “personnel issues,” and refused to comment on the Franzen incident “out of respect for the person.” She did, however, indicated that the recent controversy doesn’t surprise her. “I fully expected it,” Koetje said.

One thing Koetje might not have expected is the grass-roots support that has arisen for Franzen following her dismissal. Oak Harbor resident Arthur Morris, for instance, has been a vocal critic of Koetje’s actions, going so far as to suggest that voters write-in Franzen’s name on the ballot for the Island County Clerk position in the upcoming general election.

Morris, who referred to Franzen’s dismissal as “dirty pool,” said on Wednesday that part of the blame for the incident rests at the feet of the Island County Commissioners, who appointed Koetje to the clerk position last fall after the early resignation of Black. Morris contends that Franzen, at the time a registered Republican, was more than qualified for the job, yet the board opted to appoint Koetje, who he said “had to be sent out of town to get some schooling” for the position.

“One of the injustices that I saw there was that Sharon (Franzen) had been in that office for a number of years and knew it backwards and forwards,” Morris said. “What really ticked me off there was the way the county commissioners chose that position. I thought it was very hushy. There were quiet things going on behind the scenes.”

According to Morris, the fact that Koetje’s husband Gordon Koetje was a former county commissioner may have contributed to the board’s bias. “I just thought it was a little funny that she would get this job,” Morris said of Koetje’s appointment. “I thought that was a grave injustice. It all boils down a lot to name recognition.”

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell was part of the committee that selected Koetje to fill Black’s vacated position. He said Friday that the hiring process was fair and thorough, and ended with the appointment of the best person for the job.

“We went through a process that I think was very appropriate and thorough,” McDowell said. “I think we made the right decision. I thought it then and I still think that.”

As for the question of experience, he added that “Jane Koetje has worked here in the county for years.”

McDowell said he feels the clerk’s office is running better than ever, largely due to the changes Koetje has instituted. “I know she’s streamlined it, and started using computers a lot more,” he said. “That’s allowed her to work with less people. I was pretty impressed with that.”

McDowell said he hadn’t heard of the write-in campaign until now and expressed doubts about any chance of success. “The logistics of it are pretty tough,” he said.

It was Black who first appointed Franzen to the chief deputy clerk in 1982. Because Black was a Republican, the board was obliged to find a replacement from within that party when she resigned. However, Morris said, at the time of Black’s resignation, Franzen was indeed a Republican and wouldn’t have required as much time and training for the job as Koetje.

“I felt if the board would have put Sharon in that position she would have sufficiently taken over and ran the thing,” he said. He is especially critical of the boards decision because commissioners “are always harping about the budget.”

Morris, who has been friends with Franzen “for a few years,” called the whole situation “shady,” even though he said Koetje was within her legal right to fire Franzen. “It’s the clerk’s priority to put whoever she wants in that position,” he said, but “she could have at least let Sharon know she was being dismissed in time to register to run.” Morris said he especially feels for Franzen, who had only a few years to go until retirement.

“It was a hardship for her,” Morris said of Franzen. “At her age, getting a new job is tough.”

Franzen said she was “stunned and devastated” by her dismissal and is still processing it all, though she’s currently searching for a new job. As for supporting a write-in campaign, she said she’s undecided on whether she’ll make a serious bid for Koetje’s position.

“That’s a huge undertaking, and I don’t know if I’m willing to do that,” Franzen said. “I really don’t think it would be successful, though I think it would send a message, small though it may be.”

Franzen, who abandoned the Republican party when she failed to receive support for appointment to Black’s vacated position, said she is appreciative of the support that she’s received so far. Regardless of whether she campaigns, she said she believes the write-in campaign might open some eyes.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt if my name was out there a few times to let the county commissioners see that there was another candidate out there when the commissioners were appointing Jane,” she said. “Maybe the voters of this county need to think a little more about the politics of what goes on.”

Morris, who has spearheaded the informal write-in campaign for Franzen, said he has received supportive calls from folks who “think she received a raw deal.” He said whenever people bring the subject up, he urges people to vote for Franzen.

“I don’t know if Sharon is real enthusiastic about receiving the write-in votes, but I’m sure if she was elected she would take the job,” Morris said.

Despite the brouhaha and her own feelings of shock after being fired, Franzen said she doesn’t harbor any ill will toward Koetje; she referred to her as a “pleasant person.”

“Quite frankly, Jane and I had what I would classify as a very pleasant relationship and, I thought, a mutual respect,” Franzen said. “On my end it was. I was respectful of her, and loyal to her.”

Franzen said in part it was loyalty and hard-work that kept her in the clerk’s office for nearly a quarter century, and that didn’t change when Koetje took over, even if Koetje herself perceived otherwise.

“Let’s face it, everybody has their own take on what a person is or isn’t,” she added. “She inherited me from the previous administration. She probably would be more comfortable bringing in her own person.”

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