Turnover in Grays Harbor Blamed on Workload, Lack of Resources

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Washington’s Grays Harbor County is having a hard time keeping election administrators – and the county auditor says it’s due to a long to-do list that isn’t matched by sufficient support. The Daily World has more:

In about two years time, Grays Harbor County has cycled through four elections administrators. The current elections administrator, Buffy Hatcher, has announced she will leave the position on Nov. 30.

On Monday, Nov. 16, the commissioners approved hiring a new elections administrator, but county Auditor Vern Spatz says the issue of high turnover isn’t a result of the people who have been hired into the position, the issue is the limited resources the position has to function.

“The common reason for all of them is that it’s a very technical, high-stress job with a very steep learning curve, but it is manageable and it is doable. However, the common thread is that when the commissioners took away the voter registration support, the stress caused by having to do two positions with only one person has been the primary reason for all of them leaving, in one way or another,” Spatz said.

County legislators are allocating funds to help, but the auditor says it’s the wrong kind of support and not enough:

Spatz has continued to push for additional support for the election administration position, requesting earlier this year to hire a halftime voter registration employee. The commissioners instead allocated $4,500 for the auditor’s department to hire a temporary employee to ease the stress, but that solution is short-sighted, Spatz said.

“It’s a full-time position, and by the time you get a temporary in and get them trained up, you’re out of money for the $4,500 and you have nobody for the rest of the year and you’re starting all over again,” he said.

The problem in Grays County is the same as it is in many localities across the country: tight local budgets. To compensate, the auditor is likely going to have to cut back on other services – especially since he lacks the flexibility to hire a more experienced individual:

Spatz’s department, like other departments operating from the financially strained general fund, is feeling the stress of the county’s reduced spending. Even on Monday, the commissioners agreed to allow Spatz to hire a new employee for the position, but whereas Spatz had requested to hire into position at a salary as high as step six (in a 10-step pay scale), the commissioners voted instead to allow Spatz to hire Hatcher’s replacement at step one.

“I had asked for the high range for more latitude,” Spatz said. “I wanted to have the flexibility to hire at the higher rate if that’s what it took to get the best candidate. They’ve taken away that flexibility.”

Keeping the tight budget has put his department in a situation, he warns.

“We’re teetering on failure right now. The only reason it hasn’t failed is I’ve got 26 years worth of experience and I’m able to provide some help to the elections person, but I can’t do three jobs, and it wouldn’t take much for us to reach a breaking point,” he said.”I will not let elections fail next year, and I will devote whatever resources I have to to make that a success.”

Spatz said he plans to redirect his allocated resources to support elections moving forward.

“It’s going to have an impact to customer service in licensing and in recordings, and possibly accounts payable,” he said. “The commissioners haven’t finalized their 2016 budget, so I don’t know what kind of impact that will be. It’s very late in the process. By now the commissioners in the past have had some idea of what their budget would look like, but they’re still dealing with four different options.

“I do not have a number or a target in order to plan my budget for next year, so I don’t know what the effect will be.”

Like most election officials, Spatz feels the weight of upcoming votes and wants to get moving:

“Nov. 30 is Buffy’s last day — I would love to have somebody come in on Dec. 1. Realistically, I think I’m going to be lucky to have somebody come in by the end of December. The next election starts Dec. 11. That’s when we have to begin programming our election for the February school elections,” Spatz said. “And that’s what a lot of people don’t realize, too, is elections is not just a couple times of the year. We start Dec. 11 for the February election and as soon as we’re done with that, at the end of February, we start the April election.”

For whatever reason, the county legislators don’t seem to feel the same urgency:

The commissioners on Monday also postponed a hiring request from the auditor for an elections clerk.

“I’d like to postpone action on this request because there’s some movement going on in that department and the auditor is looking to reassign some duties, so I would like to wait until we’ve had the opportunity to speak with him,” Commissioner and Chairwoman Vickie Raines said.

Commissioner Frank Gordon agreed, saying it wasn’t necessary to decide during that particular meeting.

“She (Raines) took the words right out of my mouth,” Gordon said. “If it was going to be approved it would be something we’d talk about in the 2016 budget.”

In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising; county policymakers are tasked with managing scarce resources and so they aren’t going to be eager to spend simply because the election official asks. But given the high turnover of in recent years – and the pressing needs occasioned by a presidential election year – you’d think there would be a little more cooperation on staffing the elections office. It’s a problem that many local offices worry about – and one, unfortunately, that Grays Harbor is going to have to endure.

Stay tuned.

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