Worker vs. boss for Island County clerk job

Working in the Island County Clerk’s Office may become a tad bit awkward when the election season heats up.

Oak Harbor resident Debra Van Pelt, an employee at the clerk’s office, announced that she will run against her boss in this fall’s election. Clerk Patricia Terry was appointed to the position by county commissioners last December. They are both Democrats.

Whoever wins will have the challenging job of managing files, paperwork and money for Superior Court at a time when county government is transitioning to electronic records and cyber connectivity.

Both women said the campaigning won’t cause any problems in the office since they are professionals who will abide by rules banning politics in government buildings. Still, Van Pelt said she expects most of the office staff will support her, perhaps publicly. Her campaign committee includes current and former staff members of the clerk’s office.

“I really believe I am the best person for the job,” she said. “I have the most experience and the best understanding of the office.”

Terry, on the other hand, said she’s already brought improvements to the efficiency of the office and fixed a major filing backlog. She’s an expert in performance management and invited a group of clerk from across the state to perform an audit on the office, resulting in small but significant changes in staff assignments. She even found a way to save money by changing the color of ink.

“I look at myself as a fresh set of eyes,” Terry said. “My focus is on performance and on looking at things from the perspective of the outside.”

Former county clerk Sharon Franzen retired last December and endorsed Van Pelt to fill her shoes. Franzen said she had been teaching Van Pelt about the office so she could take over. Following state law, the Island County Democratic Party nominated three candidates — Terry, Van Pelt and South Whidbey attorney Linda Moore — to fill in until the election.

The commissioners unanimously appointed Terry after conducting public interviews with the three candidates. They stressed Terry’s ability to be innovative, her advanced education and her ability to run a strong campaign, though they also praised Van Pelt and noted that she was well liked in the county.

The two women have very different backgrounds. Terry is a registered nurse who has a master of public administration degree. She had a long career in the medical field and has become an authority in measuring performance within systems, especially government bureaucracies. She even taught a class at Seattle University about management analysis and budget management.

Terry unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) in 2008, but she said she learned quite a bit about campaigning from the experience.

Van Pelt has worked in the clerk’s office for more than five years. She said she, unlike Terry, has a comprehensive understanding of the office operations and could step into any positions if someone was sick or there was an emergency. When she asked to be appointed to the position, she provided the commissioners with a three-page summary of all the different duties she has done in the office, from issuing bench warrants to taking minutes in court to recreating files from microfilm. She’s proficient in four different computerized information systems that the office deals with and she’s attended a variety of specialized training seminars.

“I can answer all the questions that come across the counter,” she said, noting that Terry is still learning.

Van Pelt moved to Oak Harbor five years ago with her husband, a Navy man, and their five children. She never worked in a clerk’s office prior to getting the job, but she has management experience.

Both women plan to improve the operation of the office. Terry said she continues to look for ways to save money and generate income. Van Pelt said she wants to focus on getting more court records online.

“I would make records more accessible to the public,” she said, “and free up time for the staff to get their work done.”

To date, no Republican has announced interest in the office. The official filing period takes place in June.

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