Citizen organization encourages potential candidates to take on board incumbents
By Marcy Stamper
Two years ago during election season, Gay Northrup was sitting on her couch and clicking on online petitions to tell elected officials where she stood on a wide range of issues.
“But I started to wonder if that was accomplishing anything,” said the Mazama resident.
So Northrup began tracking local issues. She testified at hearings before the Okanogan County commissioners about matters such as land use and zoning. But that didn’t seem any more effective, she said.
Northrup felt the commissioners didn’t appear interested in what the public had to say during their hearings. On some matters — such as the commissioners’ decision to privatize a road that people had used to get to public land and as an evacuation route — Northrup said the commissioners ignored both local residents and the recommendation of their hearing examiner.
It turns out Northrup wasn’t alone in her concerns. Soon, a small group of people from around the county began talking and strategizing about how to elect commissioners they would consider more responsive to the public. Represent Okanogan County — ROC ON 2016 — was born.
ROC was launched with this basic mission: “To encourage qualified individuals to run as candidates for Okanogan County commissioners. We seek those who are dedicated to transparent, responsive and accountable government.”
Charlene Burns, who lives outside Twisp, had also grown concerned about county leadership. As a nurse practitioner and then-president of the Room One board, Burns was concerned about the commissioners’ lack of support for public health and social services.
“I saw this as democracy in action, a chance to get people to run for office and to encourage more people to vote,” said Burns. “There would be two openings on the board of county commissioners — it was a time where we could really make a difference.”
The terms of two of the three county commissioners — Ray Campbell (whose district includes the Methow Valley) and Sheilah Kennedy — expire this year. Kennedy has said she will run again; Campbell has not announced his decision. When County Commissioner Jim DeTro ran for a second term in 2014, he was unopposed.
Northrup, Burns and a handful of concerned citizens from Mazama to Okanogan to Chesaw began brainstorming. Their first community meeting, held last June at the Okanogan Grange Hall, drew about 30 people.
Northrup said people at the gathering had been energized by a comment made by Kennedy that appeared in notes on commissioners’ meetings taken by a group of citizens who attend the meetings every week and post their notes online. Kennedy’s remark — to the effect that “the people don’t know what they want” — confirmed for some at the Grange that the commissioners really were not responsive to the public, said Northrup.
The note-taking campaign started independently of ROC, but now their notes are posted on the ROC website, where they get the most hits by far, according to Burns.
The note-takers record detailed discussions of matters like the county budget and expenditures, but they also offer insights into the commissioners that are not included in official minutes, such as recaps of informal conversations on climate change or the presidential primary.
A second ROC meeting in October attracted even more people. By then, the group had a website and a Facebook page.
ROC is chartered as a non-partisan organization and will not endorse or support any particular candidates. “ROC does not represent any political party and remains committed to the election of strong leaders who will truly represent the people,” according to the group’s literature.
ROC has a three-member board and a six-member steering committee, plus about 20 active members, said Northrup. But she said the group may have inspired many people they don’t even know about to become involved.
“We’re trying to educate people, and to encourage people to educate themselves,” she said.
While ROC won’t support individual candidates, its members have been talking to community leaders and others who might have an interest in running, said Northrup. ROC posts information for prospective candidates on its website.
“There’s hope. There will be good candidates,” said Burns. She predicted ROC’s educational campaign will encourage more people to run, many who launch a campaign without any consultation with ROC.
A big part of ROC’s energy has been poured into a voter-registration drive. Mazama residents David Ford and Nancy Leland have been recruiting community leaders throughout the county, who set up tables at stores and community events to register voters, said Northrup. Ford has also contacted all the high schools about registering students who will be 18 by Election Day. Most schools are covering this in their civics classes, said Ford.
Beyond registering new voters, ROC is urging people to vote for all positions on the ballot. Although the last presidential election drew a large turnout, only a fraction of those people voted in local races, said Northrup.
“We’re encouraging Democrats and Republicans to vote for the best person — and not the party line — if they want to take charge of county government and really want representation,” she said.
“I’m thinking we’ll have a much different, much more engaged electorate this time around,” said Ford.
Northrup said ROC activists are disturbed by the commissioners’ financial management and taxpayers’ money spent defending the county against lawsuits.
They’re also concerned about a loss of county jobs. “They’re sending jobs out of the county in the name of smaller government. They’re using contracting instead of hiring local people,” said Northrup.
Responses to a ROC survey about important issues facing the county named water and the commissioners’ association with — and financial contributions to — groups that support transferring public lands into private hands, said Northrup.
ROC has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $4,000 for ads in six local newspapers that read: “Wanted: New County Commissioners,” and for yard signs broadcasting the same message. T-shirts and brochures, in English or Spanish, are available on their website. There are also links to articles and issue papers.
To be a candidate — or just vote for one
The earliest day for candidates to file for office is next Wednesday, May 2. Official filing week is May 16 to 20. Candidates have until May 23 to withdraw.
People can register to vote in the Aug. 2 primary, by mail or online, until July 4. New Washington voters can register in person until July 25.
The commissioners’ race will be on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Primary voters vote only for the commissioner from their own district. In the general election, voters choose commissioners from all districts in the county.
After the candidate filing period ends, ROC will probably focus on get-out-the-vote efforts, and then discuss the group’s next steps, said Burns. They may work to educate people for other upcoming elections, she said.
“But it probably won’t end in November 2016. There will be other elections,” said Burns.
For more information, visit www.rocon2016.org.