The longest-serving elected official in Cowlitz County government is moving on after over a quarter-century in the auditor’s office.
Cowlitz County Auditor Kris Swanson announced Thursday she is resigning effective Nov. 1. Swanson will head to Olympia to take over as Director of Operations in the Washington State Auditor’s Office.
Swanson, 47, became elections division supervisor in 1991. She was elected auditor in 1998. Although she said she has loved working for Cowlitz County for the last 26 years, she’s “ready for the next chapter.”
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to 26 years, because I’ve enjoyed this job,” Swanson said. “It’s the greatest gig ever, and I’m going to miss the people I work with greatly.”
Among her many accomplishments was overseeing adoption of vote-by-mail election balloting in Cowlitz County beginning in 2005. Swanson believes the system still promotes voter turnout to this day.
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“I think it’s a reminder when someone gets the ballot in the mail,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s substantial, but I do think it increases turnout. I still think we were on the cutting edge of vote-by-mail, only behind the state of Oregon. You’re starting to see, slowly but surely, a lot of these (other) states moving towards vote-by-mail.”
Swanson said one of the things she loved most about her job was the opportunities it gave her for public service. She has traveled to both the Philippines and Japan as a delegate for the U.S. It also led her to getting involved in local issues.
“... It went beyond just the walls of this office; I’m passionate about a lot of the challenges that the county faces, with public health, law and justice,” Swanson said.
Swanson has lobbied for the Washington State Association of Auditors in the state capitol and testified before the Legislature on behalf of counties to ask for more flexibility in how counties can raise revenue.
“The parts that worry me, especially lately, is the future of county government, in terms of our ability to raise revenue ... for our delivery of our basic services,” she said. “Most of our revenue comes from property tax, and when its limitation is with the 1 percent cap, we know taxes in general are higher than 1 percent every year. We’ve done all the cuts we can possibly make.”
Swanson said she didn’t enjoy all aspects of her $79,500 per year position (Her new job will pay her around $125,500 per year). Her least favorite duty was laying off workers after budget cuts.
“One of the hardest things for me to ever do was to tell one of my staff members they didn’t have a job anymore,” she said. “I’ve been through these cyclical, horrible budget times where I’ve had to lay off employees, and that is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
One change Swanson said she would like to see locally is the addition of a county administrator, someone who could help newly-elected officials learn the ropes of county government. That’s something she’s done for 18 different commissioners during her tenure.
“The truth is, county commissioners come and go,” she said. “When they come on board, and it takes them a whole term to learn all the aspects and responsibilities of their job, four years later, they can be out the door. With that is a huge loss of continuity, and that’s really just not beneficial to county government.”
Swanson said she believes local officials are in favor of the idea, and could pass it by the end of the year.
Swanson has nearly 16 months remaining in her four-year term, which expires in December 2018. Cowlitz County commissioners will choose a replacement from among three candidates nominated by the Democratic Party to serve the remainder of that term.
Who does Swanson recommend? Elections Manager Carolyn Fundingsland, whom Swanson has worked with since 2005. She said Fundingsland’s experience with elections would make her a good fit for the auditor position.
“I thought (Fundingsland) not only knew what she would be getting into, she’s also a fantastic leader,” Swanson said. “She’s highly respected by leadership in this county and both political parties in this county, and that’s a good base to start from.”
Fundingsland previously turned down the chance to become chief deputy auditor earlier in her career. She would accept Swanson’s position if the commissioners choose her.
“Things are changing, and to keep this office running smoothly and the transition as easy as possible, I’m willing to step up to the plate,” she said. “I think I’m ready for it.”
Fundingsland said the county offices are “going to sorely miss (Swanson),” adding that Swanson has “truly a wealth of knowledge.”
Former county commissioner Mike Karnofski, who worked with Swanson for six years, called the soon-to-be former auditor a “stabilizing force” and a great asset to Cowlitz County.
“She was always willing to speak up and provide her opinion, and if she thought that there was an issue that we needed to deal with, she brought it to our attention,” he said of Swanson. “I really enjoyed working with Kris.”
Weber had similar praise for the county auditor.
“(Swanson) has been a strong advocate for efficient administration for the county commissioners and ... has also been a forceful voice on behalf of county government in Olympia and has been a leader among county officials’ organizations at both the state and national level,” Weber wrote in an email. “Personally, I will miss her wise counsel and advice which she has never been hesitant to share.”
Although her career is moving north, Swanson will continue to live in Castle Rock with her husband and two sons. As someone who’s lived in Cowlitz County most of her life — Swanson attended Kelso High School and Lower Columbia College — she said leaving her county job was bittersweet. But she was still optimistic about Cowlitz County’s future.
“I grew up in this building. This is where I’ve spent my entire professional career as an adult, and my roots are here. I’m never going to forget what this county has done for me.”