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Published: Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

County's clerks witness history behind the scenes

  • Kathryn Bratcher (left) and Sheila McCallister started working for the Snohomish County Council more than 30 years ago.

    Kathryn Bratcher (left) and Sheila McCallister started working for the Snohomish County Council more than 30 years ago.

  • Clerk of the council Kathryn Bratcher (right) goes over the ropes with her replacement, Valerie Loffler, at the Snohomish County Council offices on Th...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Clerk of the council Kathryn Bratcher (right) goes over the ropes with her replacement, Valerie Loffler, at the Snohomish County Council offices on Thursday. Bratcher and another longtime clerk, Sheila McCallister, are retiring after more than 30 years on the job.

  • Clerk of the council Kathryn Bratcher (right) spends time going over the ropes with her replacement, Valerie Loffler, at the Snohomish County Council ...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Clerk of the council Kathryn Bratcher (right) spends time going over the ropes with her replacement, Valerie Loffler, at the Snohomish County Council offices on Thursday. Bratcher and another long time clerk, Sheila McCallister, are retiring after more than 30 years on the job.

EVERETT -- They've worked under 27 different Snohomish County Council members.
Between them, the two legislative cornerstones have put in more than 60 years at the council. Now, clerk Kathryn Bratcher and assistant clerk Sheila McCallister are retiring.
Off the center stage of the dais, the tandem helped keep three decades of meetings running smoothly -- except, perhaps, a Feb. 28, 2001, hearing interrupted by the Nisqually earthquake. Through changing technologies, they helped record every council vote for posterity.
"We've made huge strides in transparency here in our 30 years," Bratcher said. "There's so much more information available now to citizens than ever before."
Bratcher's last day is Jan. 17. McCallister's was Dec. 24.
Bratcher remembers the summer day in 1982 when she got the job offer by phone. She was in Las Vegas on vacation.
"I didn't win anything in Vegas," she said.
But she did return to a rewarding career, starting on Aug. 30 of that year.
McCallister began the following August as a temp. She was excited to get to work, after staying at home with two young children.
"It was just a three-week assignment and the office receptionist was taking an extended vacation," McCallister said.
Within a couple of years, Bratcher had been promoted to main clerk from an assistant's position. Her predecessor, Ellie Snyder, left to become an aide to former County Councilman Cliff Bailey in the state Senate. McCallister became assistant clerk.
It was a time of political change. Snohomish County government was in its early years of operating under a home-rule charter. Voters had replaced three county commissioners in favor of five council members representing different districts, plus an elected county executive.
Bruce Agnew was one of the original council members. He has fond memories of the clerks, who provided indispensable help adapting to the new form of government.
"They kept everything in order and they were delightful people to work with," Agnew said. "They were unpretentious and they were good with citizens."
The landscape changed over the years.
The county's population doubled, and now stands at about 730,000.
Washington's Growth Management Act, implemented in the early 1990s, complicated the clerks' jobs.
"My life here for the past 20 years has mostly been land use," McCallister said.
The increasing use of the state Public Records Act also has kept them busier.
"Now it has become unwieldy," Bratcher said.
Technical advances made some parts of the job easier.
Thanks to computer mapping, gone are the coloring parties, when staff would sit around a table highlighting zoning maps.
When the clerks started, they had just switched to cassette tapes from reel-to-reel recordings. They later adopted compact discs, which they still use for backup. In 2008, the county began live-streaming and archiving meetings through an online system.
Until 2005, council chambers were on the sixth floor of the county's Admin West building, an area now used by the county executive's staff.
In the old digs, a favorite pastime during breaks involved rooftop paper-airplane contests. Bratcher said she routinely beat former Deputy Executive Gary Weikel and once had an airplane go as far as Broadway.
"Gary Weikel used to cheat and use balsa wood, but it didn't make a difference," she said. "He never won anyway."
Former Councilwoman Liz McLaughlin, who served in the 1980s and 1990s, stood out for using her wicked sense of humor to break through legislative tedium.
"We would be sitting in the most boring meetings and she would do something to blow it up," Bratcher said.
The current county administration building, where the council moved eight years ago, is named after Bob Drewel, the executive from 1992 through 2003.
"I really admire Bob Drewel," Bratcher said. "He promoted communication and teamwork like no other elected official I've ever seen."
The respect is mutual.
"I have nothing but admiration for both of those ladies and for other people who have stepped forward in roles of public service who don't get a lot of ink, but who are responsible for making the system work," Drewel said.
Things weren't as fun under Drewel's successor, Aaron Reardon, who resigned last year.
"It's just a shameful period," Bratcher said. "What he was doing had no effect on the rest of us, except the public's perception."
Added McCallister and Bratcher, in unison: "We never stopped working."
McCallister, originally from West Seattle, lived in north Snohomish County most of her time working for the council. Now in Mill Creek, she plans to move soon to Eastern Washington. She has two grown children and two grandchildren.
Bratcher, of Marysville, grew up in Machias after her family moved there from California. In retirement, Bratcher plans to spend more time with her grandson, who will turn 4 in April.
The transition from 2013 to 2014 often felt like an extended going-away party in Snohomish County.
Term limits forced Councilmen Dave Gossett and John Koster out of office at the end of 2013.
Drewel stepped down as the executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council.
Also retiring from the council staff is analyst John Amos, who has been there about five years. Previously, Amos spent more than 20 years in budget positions in King County.
Training to take over for Bratcher is Valerie Loffler, previously clerk for the cities of Oak Harbor and Kennewick.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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