County clerk race draws plenty of interest

When Sharon Franzen talks about the support that's been gathering for her campaign for the Island County Clerk's seat, she seems genuinely surprised and grateful.

And no wonder. Since being fired Aug. 19 from her position as chief deputy clerk under incumbent Jane Koetje, Franzen's grass-roots, write-in campaign has gained momentum as numerous individuals -- including former county clerk Marilee Black -- have supported her bid for the job.

Franzen, a Coupeville resident, received close to 15 percent of the vote in the Sept. 17 primary, more than enough to get her name on the ballot for the general election. Now, she wants to win that election, but she also said the inspiring nature of her campaign has renewed her faith in the political process.

"Regardless of how this turns out, I've found it to be a very enlightening and enjoyable experience," she said last week.

Though she has in recent weeks been trying to talk about how she would improve the workings of the clerk's office -- from purchasing computer technology to boosting customer service -- she still finds it difficult to get away from the circumstances around her exit from that office this summer.

Franzen said she is eager to get beyond the controversy surrounding her dismissal from the clerk's office, an action some of her supporters, including Black, allege was politically timed. Her firing occurred after the filing deadline for the primary election.

"Once the write-in campaign was successful, I thought it was time to move on," Franzen said.

She is clear that she always perceived a good working relationship with Koetje. As chief deputy clerk and a Republican at the time, like her boss, she said she supported many of the changes Koetje made in office procedure.

"We worked very closely together on a daily basis," Franzen said. "I was pleased to see improvements being made."

Franzen is cautious when discussing the reason for her dismissal. Koetje initially re-appointed Franzen as chief deputy clerk after Black retired last year, so the firing came as a surprise.

"I can only assume that she had someone else in mind," Franzen said.

When it comes to campaigning, Franzen is standing on her 20-plus years of experience in the clerk's office. She said she is ready to step into the clerk's job because she is familiar with the workings of the office, its governing statutes, and how to provide good customer service.

"We can always work on optimal customer service," she said. "That's what the clerk's office really offers the public."

Like her opponent, Franzen emphasizes the stressful nature of helping people through often difficult legal situations. Everyone in the office, she said, must understand that even subtle changes in demeanor can be misinterpreted. For that reason, she said, deputy clerks must never seem "grumpy."

She admits that it's not always easy to be upbeat when confronted by someone having a bad day in court. This makes it all the more important to maintain composure.

"It's a stressful place," she said. "You have to have patience and sensitivity."

To make customer service better and to speed the work in the clerk's office, Franzen said she wants to update its computer equipment to the extent allowed under current budget constraints. One of her goals is to start using electronic scanning devices to record documents and make them accessible on the Internet, which could save staff time and be a boon to customer service.

Franzen does credit her opponent with improving communication and problem-solving tactics in the clerk's office, for revamping the phone system and for setting up computers in courtrooms to allow deputy clerks to catch up on paperwork during certain cases. She said she wants to maintain those improvements.

If elected, Franzen believes the transition to running the clerk's office will be easy.

"I am familiar with that office," she said. "I believe we'll be able to work together. It's a great staff in there."

Koetje cites changes, plays down her firing of opponent

Meet Jane Doe, otherwise known as Jane Koetje.

Koetje, who is currently campaigning to maintain her appointed position as Island County Clerk against write-in hopeful Sharon Franzen, jokes about changing her name for the November election.

Koetje's husband is Gordon Koetje, a former county commissioner. Jane said she just wants to be her own person, minus the inevitable baggage of a well-known name.

Koetje, who started the election season running unopposed, now faces a former employee, who got on the ballot with a strong write-in campaign in the primary election. The incumbent came under fire after firing chief deputy clerk Sharon Franzen Aug. 19. Franzen supporters called the move politically motivated.

Koetje is circumspect when addressing the recent controversy. She said her dismissal of Franzen "was a decision I did not reach lightly." Her decision to fire Franzen was based on objective rather than subjective considerations, she said. The timing of the firing was not motivated by her run for re-election, she said.

"I'm sorry that there is a perception of this being a political move," Koetje said. "However, politics did not play into the decision."

Another criticism leveled against Koetje is her perceived lack of experience in the clerk's office and the cost of training her. Koetje, who has 22 years of administrative experience working in the Island County public defender's office, said the only training she's received on the county's dime was a computer seminar. She is paying out of her own pocket the price of attending a certification program for public officials.

"I have paid for all those hours of training out of my own pocket," she said.

Calling herself a "people person," Koetje said her management skills are geared toward helping her employees "achieve their fullest." She said her previous experience as an administrator and co-founder of what is now called Court Appointed Special Advocates, which provides legal advocates for neglected and abused children, has translated into many positive changes in the clerk's office. She is not averse to working alongside her employees and considers it her duty to learn every function of the clerk's office in its day-to-day operations.

Koetje said there was definitely a period of transition when she took the former clerk's place.

"My management style was so foreign to them," she said..

Koetje said that rather than micro-managing her staff, she has instilled a sense of personal accountability. She characterized her management policy as a "free exchange of people working together, rather than six separate people working against each other."

Koetje said her staff appears happy with the changes she's instituted.

"They've made an amazing transition," she said. "I respect them so much. They work hard."

Judging from the comments of staff members in the clerk's office, Koetje is not the only one who feels things are going well. A number of deputy clerks offered only highest praise for Koetje and her style of management.

"The changes in the office have been dramatic," said Deputy Clerk Michelle McKee. "It's been wonderful."

Deputy Clerk Andrea Huff said the changes Koetje has made "were way overdue," especially the respect with which staffers are now treated.

"It's been more of a positive attitude," Huff said. "Everybody is learning more, and more able to assist people that come to the window."

According to Koetje, the prior administration was "a stumbling block to processes." For instance, she said, one of the first things she did was upgrade the phone system. She has also installed computers in the courtrooms, so clerks could catch up on paperwork.

Largely due to such material improvements, co-workers have taken to calling Koetje "the Procurement Queen," a nickname she doesn't seem to mind.

Koetje said she believes the clerk's office is functioning at a high level of proficiency, with open channels of communication among staff and a sense of responsibility toward the public being served. It hasn't been easy, she said, but what drives her is her perception of public officials as public servants.

"The responsibility is tremendous and overwhelming," she said. "I'm very humbled by the experience. My goal is to make this the best darn clerk's office in the state of Washington."

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