Riffe out to 'fix' treasurer's office

By her own assessment, an attitude of civic concern and public responsibility best characterizes the campaign of Linda Riffe, an Oak Harbor Democrat currently challenging incumbent Maxine Sauter for the job of Island County Treasurer.

Riffe, an administrator in Oak Harbor School District, has made an issue of Washington State Auditor’s Office findings over the last several years that the Island County Treasurer’s Office lacks sufficient financial controls, placing it at risk for misappropriation of funds.

Though no record of actual financial loss or wrong-doings in the treasurer’s office exists, and though Sauter herself repeatedly has stated that “not a penny” has ever gone missing since she took office in 1985, Riffe said it is the lack of controls over how tax money is being handled that drove her to run for the position.

“Mismanagement of the treasurer’s office has put this county in jeopardy,” Riffe said Wednesday, adding that in part her campaign is anchored by “a sense of extreme concern as a taxpaying citizen,” that funds are not being handled according to accepted management practices.

At issue for Riffe are a series of findings by the state’s auditors that have identified “weaknesses” in Island County’s method of handling cash, including an absence of strong internal controls, failure to make timely bank deposits, failure to fully receipt payments and a lack of segregated duties among staff, all of which create a potential for misappropriation of public funds. In January, the state audit manager called the audit results “chilling.”

Sauter claims that the audit findings are not serious, and has said she will only make those procedural adjustments that she believes fit the specific requirements of the county. She also has expressed “shock” at Riffe’s “irresponsible” claims that her office is being mismanaged, saying that her experience and track record make it crucial that she retains her position.

Riffe dismissed Sauter’s recent statements. “I know that the incumbent has said that now is not the time for change,” she said. “It is precisely the time for change. For her to continually say there’s not a problem, I just don’t understand it.”

At recent public forums and in the press, Riffe has countered Sauter’s claims that she’s falsifying and misinterpreting the truth by suggesting folks read the auditor’s report for themselves. According to Riffe, she is simply relaying the facts, which she said reveal an office in crisis. She said she has made it her goal to inform the public about what’s going on in order that voters make good decisions at the polls.

“This is not rumor, this is not innuendo, it’s documented fact,” she said of the auditor’s findings. “People have a right to be educated and a right to get the facts. They need to be armed with information.”

Riffe said one of her first goals if elected will be to bring the treasurer’s office into compliance with the state auditor’s recommendations, which she added means to a large degree merely enacting “generally accepted accounting procedures.” Her current position as a high school vice principal, as well as past experience as owner of a business consulting firm, a financial educator and as a budget planner in the corporate world, have well prepared her for the business of handling the county’s money, she said.

Riffe hold a master’s degree in administration and is co-author of the book “Leadership in the 21st Century.”

“I think the breadth and depth of my skills have prepared me very well for assuming all aspects of the treasurer’s office,” she said, adding that Sauter’s criticism that she hasn’t worked with huge sums is a “non-issue.”

“If you’re following accepted accounting practices, it doesn’t matter where the decimal point lies,” she said.

Riffe said a number of changes are needed in the treasurer’s office. One of her first moves, she said, will be to call in the state auditor to “have everything reviewed with a fine-tooth comb” in order to establish tighter internal controls. Crucial in this regard is bringing the office up-to-speed with new technology, she said, including getting everyone on-line with e-mail and voice mail, and generally creating better connections between departments. Riffe said the office has lagged in its use of available technology.

“The infrastructure is there, but the employees have not been allowed to use it,” she said, adding that everyone needs computer training “so that we can communicate speedily and accurately with financial agencies. This will save taxpayers money in the long run, through cost efficiencies.”

Riffe said she also would try to create more cohesion within the office. “One of the first things I will do is to pull together the employees and build them as a team,” she said, adding that she would use staff input to determine how better to run the office, as well as to figure out individual strengths.

For Riffe, a high rate of turnover in the office — 19 in the last 5 years, she said, including a number of chief deputies — has created a drain on taxpayer money. Though Sauter has said such numbers have been misinterpreted, Riffe said “disgruntled” employees are another a sign of mismanagement, and a further challenge to creating accountability and strong financial controls.

“You really don’t know people very well until they’re there for a while,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of internal controls, you raise your risk ten-fold” through high employee turnover.

As treasurer, Riffe said citizens will be presented with a “State of the Treasurer” report in order that everyone know exactly how the office is functioning. She said this simply fits with her “open door” policy of management, which she described as a pro-active, rather than reactive, way of serving the public.

“People can call me, they can come in to speak to me if they have concerns or questions,” Riffe said. “I consider that a public service. They have a right to know.”

Riffe said a concern for the people of Island County, and how their money is being managed, has given her a powerful sense of obligation to seek the treasurer’s position, and to serve with “honor, credibility, both ethically and professionally.

“I care about people,” she said. “it’s out of that concern that I’ve put my career on hold to run for this office.”

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