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Clerk candidates face off at forum

Debra Van Pelt, left, scratches down notes while Patricia Terry fields a question and Carol Ann Fortune listens at a candidates forum for the Island County Clerk’s position Monday evening in Coupeville. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Debra Van Pelt, left, scratches down notes while Patricia Terry fields a question and Carol Ann Fortune listens at a candidates forum for the Island County Clerk’s position Monday evening in Coupeville.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Candidates vying for the position of Island County Clerk faced off for the first time at a League of Women Voters forum Monday.

About 40 people attended the event, which was held at the Coupeville Library. Participating were appointed incumbent Patricia Terry, a Democrat from Camano; Debra Van Pelt, a Democrat from Oak Harbor; and Carol Ann Fortune, a Republican from Oak Harbor.

The race for the clerk’s seat, a four-year position that pays $70,646 a year, is the only local race that will be affected by the Aug. 17 primary results. As a top-two primary state, the two people with the most votes, regardless of party, will proceed to the November general election.

The first question quizzed the candidates on how they might deal with a 10 percent budget cut should the county’s levy increase measure fail.

Fortune, a mother of six, said she had no idea how she would address the problem.

“Honestly, I’m not sure how to handle that,” she said. “I’d have to wait and see when I get there.”

Terry, who was appointed to the position in December, said she is already preparing for just such an eventuality. She plans on supplementing her budget with revenues from under utilized fees and by not filling an existing vacant position.

Van Pelt, a deputy clerk who threw her hat into the ring for the clerk’s seat this past December when Terry was appointed, said that if the department does get a 10 percent cut, it will need someone with experience at the helm. She emphasized that she has worked in the clerk’s office for over five years, while Terry, a nurse, was appointed with no prior experience.

“Not filling a position is not the answer,” Van Pelt said. “We’re not going to be able to fill that position but we’re going to need someone that can step in and do those things.”

Another person asked about a performance audit Terry conducted for the department this year and what action she has taken regarding its findings.

Terry said characterizations of the audit being a “private correspondence” because the findings were not released to office staff are untrue. She said she had been advised by those who performed the audit not to hand it out, that this was something for her to use as a tool for reorganization and to optimize work-flow.

“I took them at their word,” Terry said.

“The last thing I wanted to do was overwhelm them (staff) with the things that needed to be changed,” she said.

Changes she implemented from the audit findings include safeguards for the handling of cash and altering the regular rotation of duties among employees.

Van Pelt said she didn’t even know an audit was happening, that she and other employees had been told the people in the office doing the review were there to help Terry adjust to her new position.

“That’s not the way it was presented to us,” she said.

Van Pelt also claimed that productivity has changed little over the past year, and that the cash-handling procedures were set up by state overseers and later refined by the state auditor. The system is accountable the way it is, she said.

Fortune declined to comment.

The candidates were also asked whether they believed the clerk’s salary is justified if the the clerk is only doing the same job as a deputy clerk.

Van Pelt did not say whether she thought the salary was excessive, but said the county’s budget problems will likely force future clerks to assist their deputies more than ever before, from helping customers to answering the phones.

Fortune said clerks are responsible for everything that happens in the department. In the event of a cut, they need to be prepared to step up and do whatever is necessary to ensure the office is performing its state-mandated duties.

“The county clerk is the one that needs to take the bull by the horns,” Fortune said.

Terry answered the question specifically, saying that she didn’t believe the duties of a deputy clerk warrant a $70,000 paycheck. The elected clerk is paid that sum because she is a manager and is held to much higher expectations. Terry may not have prior experience, but she said her master’s degree in public administration has prepared her for the task.

“What you need is someone with not just knowledge, but the ability to learn,” Terry said.

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