EVERETT — Garth Fell and Cindy Gobel have devoted their professional lives to overseeing elections.
Now, the two candidates for Snohomish County auditor are getting firsthand experience running in one. They’re vying to replace Auditor Carolyn Weikel, who is stepping down after a dozen years in office because of term limits.
Beyond elections, the auditor is responsible for animal services, document recording and licensing.
Weikel, who has been each candidate’s boss, has a strong preference for who takes over.
“There is a temperament that is necessary to lead a group of people effectively,” she said. “Over the last 12 years, Garth has demonstrated that temperament. While working in this office, I did not see his opponent demonstrate that temperament to lead the office.”
Weikel said Gobel makes dubious claims about her professional background.
Before joining Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s staff two years ago, Gobel worked in the voter registration unit of the county’s elections division. As a team lead and later in a customer service position, Weikel said Gobel’s duties, unlike Fell’s, included no high-level budget oversight, or authority to hire and fire employees. In a flier, Gobel claimed “25 years of experience in all four divisions of the auditor’s office.”
“Her campaign literature and her references to experience in all four divisions of the auditor’s office is flatly not true,” Weikel said.
Gobel defended her claims. She’s said it’s the sum of her experience at the state and the county, as well as many years working at dispatch centers for university police departments.
“I have been consistently clear about my 25 years of experience,” Gobel wrote in an email. “I have 11 years of experience in law enforcement, 12 years in the Auditor’s office, and 2 years at the Secretary of State’s office. My responsibilities in law enforcement, the Auditor’s office, and the Secretary of State’s office all used the same databases, … (state laws), customer service expectations, and level of integrity regarding legal compliance. It should be noted that I also have extensive community involvement which also develops knowledge and experience. If I was to add my years of community experience to that total the number would’ve been even higher.”
The auditor is elected to a four-year term. The job is nonpartisan.
The office employs a full-time staff of 44, with temporary workers swelling that number every election season. The budget can range from about $11 million, in an off-year election, to $13 million during a presidential year.
Whoever takes over must contend with low voter turnout in non-presidential election cycles, and fulfill a state mandate to place more ballot drop boxes throughout the county. Another challenge is providing vehicle licensing services in parts of the county where no business is able to make a go of it.
At the same time, animal control officers must keep pace in a growing county with rural and urban areas.
Fell highlights more than 20 years of experience in elections, much of it in management. From 2011 until last year, he took on a dual role in charge of the auditor’s recording division. While he has never overseen animal services or licensing, he said he’s learned about them as part of the auditor’s management team.
“My goal is not only to make sure that our work in each of our offices is done well, but to make sure we keep the entire county perspective in mind,” Fell said.
With money always in short supply, “that means we’ll need to continue to look for creative ways in how we manage our work,” he said.
To prevent conflicts of interest during the election, Fell said he took “reasonable steps to appropriately limit my involvement.”
“I don’t and won’t have access to ballots or the systems we use to conduct the election,” he said. “My role this election is focused on ensuring staff have the information and resources they need to be successful for voters, candidates and the public.”
He said that work remains open to public scrutiny.
Before starting at Snohomish County in 2007, Fell worked on elections for King County. There, he rose to a position as assistant superintendent of ballot processing and delivery.
In 2004, he was at the center of allegations over the poor handling of absentee ballots in King County. That was a point of contention when Republican Dino Rossi lost the gubernatorial race to Democrat Chris Gregoire by just 129 votes statewide.
In the aftermath, Fell and others were put on probation, and he was grilled by lawyers. By the time he started working for Snohomish County, however, officials were praising him for helping to turn things around.
“I’m proud of the work that my team and I did after that to make improvements,” he said. “Certainly, there was a lot of opportunity there. I appreciate the opportunity I was given.”
A key takeaway, he said, was learning the importance of accountability measures to demonstrate fair, accurate results.
As she competes to lead the auditor’s office, Gobel emphasizes her perspective as both an insider and outsider. She said she has the right background to make reforms.
“Snohomish County residents deserve leadership that supports equal access to voting rights and demonstrates a commitment to community engagement,” she said.
Gobel said she would try to speed up work to bring the county into compliance with a state law for ballot drop boxes. She claims that boxes were installed in urban locations before rural locations. Fell said the office has been working on a plan since the state law took effect in 2017 and is on track to have 32 boxes, up from 23 now, in time for the 2020 presidential election. Weikel and other auditors across the state consider the law an unfunded mandate.
Another priority for Gobel is making it easier for people with disabilities to vote. She also wants to encourage future voters by engaging more with young people at schools.
“We used to do this over a decade ago with art contests and voting machines used for voting on student council positions,” she wrote in an email. “Those programs ceased and were faded out over time. I want to implement programs such as state-wide mock elections, activities related to OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) mandates, and civic engagement opportunities such as video and art contests, internships and volunteer opportunities that provide knowledge and skill growth for our youth.”
Gobel works with county auditors statewide through the Secretary of State’s Certification and Training program. Before joining Snohomish County’s voter registration unit in 2005, she was employed in dispatch centers for the University of Washington and Western Washington University police departments.
By Tuesday afternoon, Fell’s campaign had attracted more than $21,000 in cash from outside donors. They included Executive Dave Somers and other county officials, past and present.
About three-quarters of Gobel’s campaign cash came from her pocket. She reported almost $6,000 from outside contributors — and $35,000 of her own money. Washington State Democrats provided her with $4,580 worth of in-kind campaign services.
No postage is required to mail ballots, which must be postmarked no later than Nov. 5. Ballots may also be deposited in drop boxes throughout the county that are open around the clock until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
What’s at stake?
A four-year term as Snohomish County auditor.
The auditor’s office is responsible for overseeing elections, document recording, animal control and licensing services (including vehicles and specialty businesses).
The county auditor is set to earn nearly $140,000 in 2020.
Meet the candidates
Experience: Snohomish County elections manager (2007 to present); Snohomish County recording manager, simultaneous with elections duties (2011 to 2018); King County elections, various positions (1999 to 2007).
Experience: Secretary of State’s Office, Certification and Training program (2017 to present); Snohomish County Elections Division, group lead and customer service in voter registration (2005-2017); University of Washington Police Department, communications manager (2000 to 2004); Western Washington University Police Department dispatcher (1992 to 2000); law degree from Seattle University (2015).