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Treasurer hopefuls square off

A primary debate Wednesday night among candidates for the Island County treasurer's job was marked by an us-against-them atmosphere as two challengers questioned the incumbent's history of critical reports from the state.

Treasurer Maxine Sauter, who has held her position since first being elected in 1986, was confronted on a number of fronts by challengers Marty Matthews, a Republican, and Democrat Linda Riffe at a voters forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Oak Harbor Senior Center.

The packed house listened and watched as Sauter -- wearing dark sunglasses and occasionally raising her voice -- refuted claims by both candidates that serious changes are due in the treasurer's office.

At times, the exchange between candidates became heated, compelling one audience member to accuse the two challengers of "starting nasty and staying nasty" in their campaigns.

Two issues in particular dominated the forum. First, there was the recent state finding that the county treasurer's office lacks sufficient financial controls. A perceived need for new technology in the office was also at issue.

Matthews used the first issue to attack residents' faith in Sauter.

"If there's any one quality you want in the treasurer's office, it's confidence," Matthews said. "It's important to address the auditor's report, and make sure that you, as taxpaying citizens, are comfortable that the controls are there."

Recent audit reports have cited a lack of internal controls in the treasurer's office, though it's also been pointed out that so far no incidents of fraud or missing money have occurred. Sauter, who has resisted implementing some changes suggested by state auditors, said she has improved financial controls and will continue to do so.

"I just can't believe what I'm hearing," Sauter said. "There has never been a penny missing in 16 years. I have used many suggestions by the state auditor, and they've worked well."

Sauter said there was a "lack of truth" in recent statements about her office and challenged her opponents to look into how well her system works. Riffe, who has no primary challenger, said it was the auditor's report that compelled her to run for treasurer. She said that along with the lack of controls she allowed, Sauter is not using new technology to its fullest extent.

Between the two issues, Riffe said, the treasurer's office is creating "unnecessary expense" by drawing lengthy state audits.

"The information that I shared with you tonight is not rumor, it's not innuendo," said Riffe, who is currently vice principal at Oak Harbor High School. "This is not a personal issue. It's a professional issue."

Riffe said controls are needed "to prevent anybody from being accused of fraud without being in a position to defend themselves."

Both Matthews and Riffe said the treasurer's office is behind on implementing new technologies for accounting. Sauter, however, said new technologies have been implemented in her office "as much as the budget has allowed."

Candidates also debated the issue of their respective experience in handling and managing large sums of money. Matthews said that when he was in the 737 division of Boeing, he was in charge of a budget between $30 and $50 million. Riffe said she hadn't handled anywhere near such sums, having run a small business in the 1970s with a budget of approximately $200,000. However, she said, numbers are all relative.

"The skills and the knowledge transfer," Riffe said.

Sauter weighed in with her own numbers.

"I handle $16 million each day," she said.

Sauter said that since 1996 she has earned the county over $22 million through investments.

"Wise investments are made so the county and other districts can survive," Sauter said. "We have to be very careful how we handle it."

Riffe countered by noting that how and where the treasurer invests money is strictly regulated by state and federal law.

"The treasurer can only invest in specific categories," she said.

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