Director of elections: The quest for integrity in King County

The public’s expectations for its elected officials are high.

People expect honesty, integrity, sound character, mature judgment and tempered objective decision-making. They will accept, as a general rule, that their elected officials may not always measure up. But the one job for which they will not accept less is in the conduct of their elections.

The public’s expectation for the electoral process goes to the very heart of their democratic beliefs. That core expectation was shaken, somewhat artificially, by political interests for a period of time. And that caution and hesitation, of belief in the system, caused the public to believe it was time to substitute its own political judgment on who should head elections over a search-and-interview process an executive appointment provided. Well, as one elections insider commented to the public at large last week after looking at the list of potential candidates: “Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.”

Until appointed incumbent Sherril Huff’s surprise announcement that she would be a candidate for her own job, most government watchers had described the list of applicants as “shockingly weak.” Another insider cynically said the list resembled a cast of Disney characters including Sleepy, Dopey and Goofy. Still another in frustration asked if the ballot would include a “none of the above” option.

Huff’s announcement after months of saying she wouldn’t be a candidate came as a welcome surprise to many, as she has received much of the credit for a string of successful controversy-free elections. And while some who held the job before her should receive some acknowledgement, she has effectively held the director, assistant director and superintendent’s jobs all at once — and restructured the department to achieve its current success.

Many professionally trained elections administrators wouldn’t apply for the other two vacancies for fear the director’s job would be won by a politician. Other current incumbent elections managers had made it known in the past few weeks that they would leave as soon as the election was certified if Huff or someone of equal credibility didn’t step up as a candidate. Even before filing, one Seattle newspaper had already stated it was “troubled” by some of the candidates.

So who are these people who have caused so much anguish to good government types?

Former Republican King County Councilman David Irons and current Republican State Sen. Pam Roach have the name recognition but little else as neither have the training, experience or temperament the job requires, according to many sources, including Republicans. They are also likely to draw votes from each other.

Also filing were political gadfly Chris Clifford, who is a Renton school teacher; Bill Anderson from Auburn, who has a background in banking; and as expected, Julie Ann Kempf, who was elections superintendent for a few years but was fired after the 2002 election for dishonesty.

Democrat Jason Osgood achieved some name recognition in a losing race for secretary of state, but his views on mail ballots and computerization of results tabulation are inconsistent with the public’s expectations and current policy direction. Osgood withdrew after Huff’s announcement and has already endorsed Huff.

Ellen Hanson, who managed the elections department about two decades ago, and Port Commissioner Lloyd Hara, who held management positions with the City of Seattle several years ago, seem to have some of the credentials the public would look for. However, Hara has no elections training and the job is far more complex and demanding than it was when Hanson was there before. Both decided not to file and are expected to endorse Huff.

Others who considered making a run (but didn’t) include Anthony Hemstad, a Valley Medical Center Commissioner and former Maple Valley City Manager, and Ross Baker, who recently “resigned” as King County Council Chief of Staff.

Since most of the public won’t know many of these candidates, watch for the Municipal League ratings. They will give you independent and objective analysis of the candidates.

More buzz:

In another county office, apparently all the speculation about Washington officials and the Barack Obama administration has some merit. Federal officials are asking background questions about King County Executive Ron Sims. Should Sims leave, the maneuvering, which has already started, would be among the most intense ever seen.