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Sauter battles two challengers for treasurer

County Treasurer candidates Marty Matthews, Linda Riffe and incumbent Maxine Sauter answer questions at the League of Women Voters’ forum in Oak Harbor Wednesday night. - Rick Levin
County Treasurer candidates Marty Matthews, Linda Riffe and incumbent Maxine Sauter answer questions at the League of Women Voters’ forum in Oak Harbor Wednesday night.
— image credit: Rick Levin

A primary debate Wednesday night among candidates for the Island County Treasurer’s job was marked by an us-against-them atmosphere, as the two challengers questioned the incumbent’s history of critical reports by the state’s auditor’s office.

Incumbent Treasurer Maxine Sauter, who has held her position since first being elected in 1986, was confronted on a number of issues by challengers Marty Matthews, a Republican, and Linda Riffe, a Democrat, at the primary forum hosted by the county’s League of Women Voters at the Oak Harbor Senior Center.

Sauter, a Republican, must first beat Matthews in the Sept. 17 primary, then take on Riffe in the Nov. 5 general election.

The packed house looked on as Sauter, in dark sunglasses and occasionally raising her voice, refuted claims by both challengers that serious changes are due in the treasurer’s office. At times, the exchange became heated, compelling one audience member to accuse the two challengers of “starting nasty and staying nasty” in their campaigns.

Two issues in particular dominated the forum. First, there was the question of well-publicized findings by the state auditor that the county’s treasurer’s office lacks sufficient financial controls, which Sauter has adamantly denied. The need for new technology in the office was also at issue.

“If there’s any one quality you want in the treasurer’s office, it’s confidence,” Matthews said. “It’s important to address the auditor’s report, and make sure that you, as tax-paying citizens, are comfortable that the controls are there.”

Recent audit reports have found a lack of internal controls in the treasurer’s office, though it’s also been pointed out that so far no incidents of fraud or missing money have occurred. Sauter, who in the past has been stubborn about implementing any changes suggested by the auditor, said she has improved financial controls, and will continue to do so.

“I just can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Sauter said. “There has never been a penny missing in 16 years. I have used many suggestions by the state auditor, and they’ve worked well.”

Sauter said there was a “lack of truth” in recent statements about her office and challenged her opponents to look into how well her system works. “I just can’t believe this,” Sauter said about allegations over lack of financial controls. “We have the best controls of most treasurer’s offices in the state.”

Riffe said it was the state auditor’s report that actually compelled her to run for treasurer. “I was so concerned as a tax-paying citizen that I decided to put my career on hold and pursue the treasurer’s position,” she said.

Riffe pointed out that along with a lack of controls, the treasurer was not using new technology to its fullest extent. She added that lengthy audit reports create an “unnecessary expense” for the county.

“The information that I shared with you tonight is not rumor, it’s not innuendo,” said Riffe, who is currently a vice principal at Oak Harbor High School. “This is not a personal issue,” she added. “It’s a professional issue.”

Riffe said controls are needed “to prevent anybody from being accused of fraud without being in a position to defend themselves.”

Both Matthews and Riffe said the treasurer’s office is behind on implementing new technologies for accounting. “It has the least amount of technology in use today of any office in Island County,” Matthews said, adding that his background in software development has prepared him for the task of bringing things up to date.

“The whole office needs to be looked at,” Matthews said. “I’m told there are many areas that can be automated, and I would use my expertise to do that.”

Riffe also argued that the treasurer was not fully utilizing technological capacities. “It is my understanding that the infrastructure has been there all along, but has not been put to use,” she said.

Sauter said new technologies have been implemented in her office “as much as the budget has allowed.”

Candidates also debated the issue of their respective experience in handling and managing large sums of money. Matthews pointed out that when he was in the 737 division of Boeing for a period of about three years, he was in charge of a budget of between $30 and $50 million. Riffe said she hadn’t handled anywhere near such sums, having run a small business in the 1970s with a budget of approximately $200,000. However, she added, in the matter of accounting, numbers are all relative. “The skills and the knowledge transfer,” Riffe said.

“I handle $16 million each day,” Sauter said, referring to the managing of the county’s various expense funds. She added that since 1996, she has earned the county over $22 million through investments. “That’s the best in the state,” Sauter said, challenging the audience to “check it out.”

“Wise investments are made so the county and other districts can survive,” Sauter said. “We have to be very careful how we handle it.” The treasurer’s office manages money for small taxing districts in the county.

Riffe countered by pointing out that how and where the treasurer invests money is strictly regulated by state and federal law. “The treasurer can only invest in specific categories,” she said.

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