Longtime county clerk faces former top employee

Island County Clerk Debra Van Pelt is facing her first opponent in 12 years in office.

Island County Clerk Debra Van Pelt is facing her first opponent in 12 years in office.

In the Nov. 8 election, Van Pelt will face her former employee, Dierdre Butler. Van Pelt is a Democrat while Butler is running unaffiliated.

Running against the incumbent has proven to be a challenge. In the Aug. 2 primary, Van Pelt received 62% of the vote, while Butler received 37%.

The position of county clerk is the record-keeping and financial officer of the Island County Superior Court. In Van Pelt’s words, it is an administrative office that is responsible for making sure all the laws and mandates set by the legislature and the administrative offices of the courts are upheld.

Butler described the clerk’s office as the gateway to the courthouse. The office handles things like divorces, criminal cases, family law, probates and adoptions and works with both attorneys and the public.

Incumbent Van Pelt began working at the Island County clerk’s office as a deputy clerk in 2005. She was first elected to the county clerk position in 2010.

“I have a passion for this,” Van Pelt said. “I love helping people. I enjoy helping people get the justice that they need in the court system.”

Van Pelt said she is running again because she has not yet accomplished all of her goals for the office.

“I set forth some goals when I took on this position,” she said. “I would like to complete those goals, as far as getting all of our court records online. That’s something that we’ve never had before in Island County.”

Another goal she wants to focus on if reelected is to maintain, or even increase, the current staffing level at the clerk’s office, which has suffered from high amounts of turnover.

“We are sorely understaffed,” she said.

Van Pelt attributes this to the low starting pay, which is among the lowest in county government. She described her staff as overworked and underpaid.

“We are under stress,” she said. “We have a high volume of paperwork, a high volume of hearings.”

She said that people are coming to court on the worst days of their lives and it takes a special kind of person to deal with the stress that entails.

Van Pelt’s opponent Butler worked at the Island County Clerk’s Office from 2014 to 2021. She started out as a deputy clerk and was the chief deputy clerk from 2018 until she left the job. She currently works for the county auditor’s office. She said she left the clerk’s office because of the negative environment there.

“The decision was hard,” she said, adding that she enjoys her current job but believes she can make the changes the clerk’s office needs.

Butler’s main focus would be on retention of employees.

“The longer a person is there, the more knowledge they have,” she said. “The more knowledge they have, when somebody from our community comes to that counter, they’ll be able to get the help that they need.”

Butler said that both the clients and employees of the office need to be treated with more compassion and respect and that the employees need more training, support and recognition.

“That is what I can offer that’s not there,” she said.

She also thinks the office is understaffed and said that contributed to the high rate of turnover.

Even if she doesn’t win, Butler wants people to know she thinks there are problems within the office that need to be addressed.

“I wanted to give the people a choice that they have not had,” she said.