One candidate for the Okanogan County Auditor position works in that office now and is hoping to move up. The other used to work for the auditor’s office and wants to return as the top administrator.
Cari Hall and Randy Gates both have deep roots in the community and are known to a lot of county residents — more so on the east side of the Loup. Both are running as Republicans. Each points to their experience as a major advantage in the contest. The winner will replace Laurie Thomas, who is retiring.
Hall has worked for three years as the finance manager in the auditor’s office. Before that, she was chief financial officer at the nonprofit Okanogan Behavioral HealthCare for 13 years.
Hall does not have an extensive social media presence as a candidate — she doesn’t have a campaign website — and is self-funding her campaign because she doesn’t want to ask for donations. She said she prefers face-to-face contact with county residents. Campaigning and meeting lots of people, she said, has been “an eye-opening experience.”
Hall said there are some similarities between the nonprofit and county positions, such as required transparency and a sense of unity among the staff.
The auditor’s office is somewhat decentralized, with divisions handling responsibilities including elections, vehicle licensing, recording of a host of legal documents, monitoring all county operational expenditures and assisting the commissioners with budgeting.
Part of her current role is assisting other county departments. “We’re the neutral ones sitting at the table,” she said.
“I like building relationships,” Hall added. “I feel strongly about working well with people, as an interpreter or helper.”
Hall said she was encouraged as a youngster to go into accounting, and that eventually evolved into organizational management. When the county job came up in 2015, she was ready for a new challenge.
“I feel like I’ve been able to add something,” she said.
Hall supports mail-in balloting and prepaid postage for ballots, but said a state requirement to have voting drop boxes throughout the county would be costly to implement — with no other state support.
The question, she said, is “how do we implement this wonderful thing without cutting [the budget] elsewhere? The convenience to voters is awesome. The impact should not be adverse to the county.”
Hall suggested that county officials could urge the commissioners to reach out to state elected officials for help. Auditors around the state could also be involved in pushing for a resolution that assists large rural counties.
Too often, she said, local governments are left to implement statewide policies with any funding. The state also takes the major portion of fees for document recording and licensing, leaving the counties to absorb service costs, she said.
“It’s a big issue,” Hall said of underfunded and unfunded state mandates. “We need help in paying for this stuff.”
“We don’t need to give up,” Hall said. “Let’s be vocal. Let’s show them the impacts.”
Despite the party affiliation — which Hall said no one asks her about on the campaign trail — Hall stressed that the auditor must be unbiased in dealings with constituents and other county departments.
“It’s a job I’m applying for,” she said of the position. Campaigning is “six months of job interviews.”
If she gets the job, Hall said, the transition will be “seamless” in the auditor’s office. Because another top administrator is also retiring, it will be important to have continuity and experience at the top, she said.
“We’re losing a lot of history, experience and knowledge,” Hall said. “We offer vital services and it’s important to keep them going.”
Hall said she will encourage more cross-training among auditor’s office employees, including herself. She is already certified in vehicle licensing.
As a long-time resident, Hall said, her motivation to seek the auditor’s job is simple: “I want to make a difference for my community.”
Gates previously worked in the auditor’s office for 10 years as the licensing supervisor. He left the position in 2017 through a confidential agreement, he said, but would like to return to the office because of his belief in maintaining superior customer service for county residents.
“People missed me [at the auditor’s office],” Gates said. “I have an opportunity to do something about it.”
Gates, who studied business at Western Washington University and Cascade Business College, has been active in community organizations such as the River Valley Soccer Club and North Central Youth Soccer Association. He has held management and supervisory positions in previous jobs, he said.
Gates isn’t spending much money on campaigning either. He said that on his breaks from his job at Walmart, he stands at the major intersection near the store with a campaign sign and waves as passers-by. The response is mostly positive, he said.
“I decided I would run my campaign like I would run the auditor’s office — frugally,” Gates said.
As for issues, Gates said he would tackle what he says is excessive employee turnover in the auditor’s office, and what he called “office logistics” that could be altered to help improve service.
“There were folks who got frustrated with the way they were treated [in the auditor’s office],” he said. “It seemed odd to me that that we couldn’t keep qualified people.”
Despite a high turnover rate, he said, the county always draws lots of well-qualified applicants for available positions.
Gates said his experience in vehicle licensing and his customer service acumen are important attributes he would bring to the auditor’s office.
“I can lead by example with my customer service skills,” he said.
Gates said another reason he is running is his enthusiasm for the community. “I really love living here,” he said.
He also supports more cross-training of auditor’s office employees, which he said could help ensure a more-stable workforce. “I plan to learn each department individually,” he said.
He added that the auditor’s office “needs to be better organized” to cut down confusion when constituents are in need of help. “I want to make it easier for people to know where they are and what to do,” he said. He would also explore expanding office hours for licensing. And the auditor’s office needs improved transparency, he said.
Gates likes the idea of mail-in ballots with paid postage, but said more needs to be done to encourage people to participate in voting.
Although he also is registered as a Republican, Gates said he “leans Republican” but believes there should be more bipartisanship. “We are all in it together,” he said. “Party lines are not as divided as people think they are.”
If elected, Gates said, the first thing he will do is “get reacquainted with staff,” and will also look at possible economies in the office budget: “How can we do the same thing with less? There are ways to save money.”
He said he would also spend more time visiting subagent offices around the county, would establish a stronger social media presence, and would connect more with constituents.
After some “initial uneasiness,” Gates said, he expects his tenure “will bring strength” to the auditor’s office.