Four out of five candidates for Pierce County assessor-treasurer agree on one thing: The incumbent needs to go.
The incumbent, Dale Washam, disagrees.
The race for assessor, a job that pays more than $126,000, pits four candidates against Washam, whose office has been the center of a storm of investigations, damage claims, settlements and legal costs that exceed $1.5 million.
Washam’s opponents use different words to describe the situation, but the message is the same.
“The department is broken,” said Spiro Manthou, former Tacoma city councilman.
“The current administration has failed us,” said Tim Farrell, Pierce County councilman.
“The assessor’s office is broken,” said Mike Lonergan, former city councilman.
“The citizens of Pierce County deserve an office environment where there is professional behavior from top management down,” said Billie O’Brien, the administrative officer at the assessor’s office.
As for Washam, he says he’s done his job, and he wants to keep doing it. Asked why he deserves re-election, he gave this answer via email:
It is important to have a true advocate for the taxpayer in office. I will let the property taxpayers decide if I deserve re-election.
Washam, 74, stands apart from his rivals in several ways. He’s the incumbent. He’s raised no money. He’s not asking anyone for campaign contributions. He hasn’t attended campaign forums.
He also doesn’t do interviews. The other four candidates spoke to The News Tribune by phone or in person. Washam insisted on receiving questions via email. The questions and his answers appear in this story unedited.
Washam has feuded with county leaders and his own employees since his first month in office. Last summer, he faced a recall campaign that barely missed qualifying for the ballot.
During Washam’s four-year tenure, multiple independent investigations found he retaliated against his employees, violated their rights, abused his power and wasted government resources. Five claims for damages against Washam’s office led to settlements of $1.13 million earlier this year. Associated legal costs tacked on an additional $412,000.
This spring, County Council members passed a resolution declaring no confidence in Washam and asking him to resign. This summer, the county’s ethics board concluded he violated the county’s ethics code by using public resources to oust Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who had given Washam legal advice he didn’t like.
What’s Washam’s beef? He says his predecessor, Ken Madsen, unlawfully used computer models to appraise certain properties, instead of the physical inspections required by law.
State records show the computer-modeled assessments met or exceeded international standards of accuracy, but Washam insists the process falsified property tax rolls.
He has made physical inspections his signature issue and completed more than 235,000 such inspections since taking office.
His rivals for the office collectively tout their leadership skills and their ability to work with others – a quality they say Washam lacks.
Lonergan, 62, might have the catchiest campaign slogan in the race: “Let’s fix this.” He says he’s the only candidate with executive experience. He cites his 12 years as leader of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, as well as his City Council service.
“I was the CEO of the mission,” he said. “We had about a $4 million annual budget and 65 employees. I was responsible to a board of directors and to the public for the operation of the mission.”
The mission runs social services, from transitional housing and addiction recovery programs to providing food for the hungry. It’s a religious organization – Lonergan is a Christian, and his beliefs inform his approach to public service.
He says he believes in collaborative decision-making. Those qualities apply to the internal workings of the assessor’s office as well as its relationship with other government agencies.
“I can motivate people and communicate well with people,” he said. “Obviously there’s a need for someone to develop a team spirit and morale in the assessor’s office. But also externally, communication is very important. The office does not exist for the benefit of the employees. The office exists, obviously, to serve the public.”
He doesn’t foresee making immediate changes at the office, other than easing the internal tensions. Long term, Lonergan says he’d like to see the office become the best of its kind in the state. Part of that effort, he said, starts with helping the public understand the property tax process more clearly, including appeals of appraisals and access to certain exemptions.
Manthou, 61, says his experience as a general services administrator at Bates Technical College gives him the know-how and experience to lead the assessor’s office.
“I feel I’ve got the experience to go in there and turn the thing around,” he said. “I’ve got 28 years of experience doing this kind of stuff. I’ve got the energy and the desire to do it.”
His administrative duties involve the nuts and bolts of the college and its branch campuses: records storage, mail distribution, equipment. He oversees a large staff of employees, and he’s accustomed to dealing with unions and negotiations – an area he also watched as an eight-year member of the City Council.
While he criticizes Washam’s management style, Manthou says the incumbent has a point about past practices at the office.
“(Washam was) making his point that it’s not the way it should be done,” Manthou said. “I think he also brought forward some workplace behavior issues. I’m not sure if they’re true or not. He wasn’t smart enough to know how to deal with it.”
Like Lonergan, Manthou doesn’t see the need for big changes at the office.
“To me, the main focus that I would have is to go rebuild that team, getting their confidence back,” he said. “I think you have some excellent employees in there.”
O’Brien, 63, has never run for office before but she’s worked at the assessor’s office for 21 years, and knows the internal processes, the technical details that drive the bureaucratic engine.
“I have worked as an appraiser,” she said. “I understand the appraisal side of the office. I know the systems. I’ve worked in the field. I can answer the questions that the taxpayers have. I think all of that makes me very unique. I know the budget, and I’ve done the work. There’s not another candidate that can say that.”
She intends to streamline the appeal process for taxpayers, making it more understandable and easier to use.
O’Brien is running against her boss, but the relationship between the two is respectful, and Washam has not clashed with her, she said. She thinks it’s because she handles the treasurer side of the office, the tax-collecting section, which hasn’t been a point of controversy. That doesn’t mean she’s been silent.
“There hasn’t been a time when I ever let him believe that I agreed with the direction that he’s taken,” she said. “I do my job, I treat him with the respect accorded to the position, but I’m also very honest with him. I’m not saying that we’ve never had words or never disagreed because we have. “
Farrell, 42, is a history buff and an admitted policy wonk. He likes to chew over organizational theory. He says he believes in “management by walking around,” as a way to build morale and mutual respect. He cites former Gov. Booth Gardner as one of his role models. He sees public service as a calling.
“I like working for the public,” he said. “It’s fun to solve problems.”
As part of his preparation for seeking the assessor’s office, he’s taken courses in real estate appraisal to gain a better grip on the process. He’s spoken to assessors in other counties and asked them about how the job works.
He sees opportunities for efficiency at the assessor’s office. He points to exempt properties as an area where time could be saved. Exempt properties - schools, churches, parks and other public facilities - don’t pay taxes. Yet they’re appraised like everything else. Unless such properties are going to be sold, Farrell questions the worth of inspecting and appraising them when government resources are scarce.
Like O’Brien, Farrell also hopes to shed more light on the property-tax appeal process, citing a program in King County that allows property owners to appeal their appraisals online. Building such a tool in Pierce County would simplify the task for the public, he said.
He doesn’t see the need for wholesale changes at the assessor’s office. He would prefer to take things slowly, and rebuild relationships with the staff. Citing his work on the County Council, he says he can work with the county’s public-employee unions, and notes they have been willing to negotiate in an era of austere budgets.
“That’s what Dale Washam did that didn’t work very well,” he said.
In addition to answers listed above, Washam responded to several other questions via email.
He said his office doesn’t need more money.
“The public sector must do more with less, just as our citizens are having to do,” he said.
Asked about his plans for a second term, he said he’ll keep doing what he’s doing.
Question: If you are re-elected, what are your new priorities and plans?
Answer: We have simply been doing our jobs pursuant to law, and will continue to do the same in my second term.
Asked if he’d learned any lessons in his first term, he said it’s easier to do things right the first time.
Q: What have you learned in your first term as assessor-treasurer, and how would you apply that knowledge in a second term?
A: Doing the job pursuant to law in the first place is the most efficient approach. Otherwise it is far more expensive when those that follow you have to clean it up. In my second term, we will continue to follow all laws regarding assessments at all times.
Q: How do you hope to prevail against challengers who have raised more money than you have?
A: I have asked no one for money. Money should not speak louder than a proven record of accomplishments. With God’s help, I will be re-elected and continue to honestly serve the citizens of Pierce County.