As this grueling, grating, seemingly endless election season staggers to a welcome finish, it’s appropriate to give one local organization due credit for helping make our county commissioner races more competitive and meaningful.
Represent Okanogan County (ROC) has weathered some attacks from certain quarters — the quarters that think the current commissioners are doing a fine job, and would like the rest of us to just shut up — to quietly prod the county’s residents out of their lethargy and into action.
ROC started from the premise that the county’s leadership was faulty and failing its constituencies in troubling ways, and that it was time to consider fresh possibilities. The organization took an educational approach, and urged people throughout the county to run for office or support someone who was willing to challenge the incumbents. ROC didn’t identify with any party. But its message — “Wanted: New County Commissioners” — was unequivocal.
It wasn’t entirely ROC’s doing — disgruntlement with the current commissioners has been building for four years, and ROC simply gave it a voice — but the primaries for the two open seats on the board of commissioners each featured four candidates. A bit of a scramble, but preferable to finding just one name on the ballot, as has too-often happened in the past. A complacent and accepting electorate only encourages less-responsive governance.
In District 2, which represents the Methow Valley, incumbent Ray Campbell was soundly defeated in the primary by newcomers Andy Hover and Ashley Thrasher, two well-qualified candidates who are facing off next Tuesday. Even people who support one or the other of them mostly think the valley can’t go wrong with either candidate.
In District 1, incumbent Sheilah Kennedy barely got a quarter of the votes from her own district in the primary. She’s being challenged by another strong first-time candidate, Chris Branch, and is spending a lot of time trying to retroactively explain her decisions as a commissioner. Evidently, a lot of people believe those decisions need explaining.
The primaries demonstrated that the electorate was open to new possibilities. Many voters are ready for changes. We’ll see how that plays out next Tuesday. All the candidates have been active, and each has drawn a strong core of supporters.
A while back, ROC had to deal with a complaint about its activities, challenging its status and funding sources. The organization was initially a bit naive about the political process, frankly. After ROC officially registered as a political committee, the state Public Disclosure Commission decided not to investigate any further and closed the case. Registering as a political committee actually gave ROC more latitude to work effectively, its leaders say.
ROC’s critics like to argue that the organization is funded by “outsiders” and special interest groups, a weak attempt to discredit (and if possible, disenfranchise) the Methow Valley’s fiercest advocates — many of whom are property owners here. And the critics like to assert that they alone represent the Okanogan County lifestyle. They’re wrong on that count too, and the elections may drive the point home. Okanogan County is a wonderfully diverse place, and we all have much to learn from each other. Mostly, the critics are annoyed that concerned citizens might organize and act effectively in support of alternatives.
ROC’s work is all done by volunteers, some of whom have logged hundreds of hours and hundreds of miles keeping track of the commissioners’ meetings to provide current reports (the meeting minutes are often not available for several weeks). If it did nothing else, ROC has provided a valuable service on its website by posting notes from the meetings. Some commission actions and issues might not have come to the public’s attention in the same way but for ROC’s dogged oversight.
All Okanogan County residents — not just those in the Methow — have benefited from ROC’s efforts to raise awareness and point people to useful information. However the elections turn out, there’s going to be a different atmosphere in the political arena now. Whoever is sitting on the board of commissioners will face greater scrutiny and be asked for more accountability and transparency. For that, ROC deserves our thanks.