On Tuesday, Athens County voters will decide whether Republican incumbent Jill Thompson or Democrat Ric Wasserman is best suited to fulfill the position of the Athens County auditor. It’s not the first time voters have had to choose between the two opponents.
In the 2002 Athens County auditor election, Thompson, who had held the auditor’s position since her appointment in 2000, defeated her then-opponent Wasserman with nearly 63% of the Athens County vote.
20 years later, the two are running campaigns against each other again. Since 2002, Thompson has won four additional elections and is the longest-serving auditor in Athens County history.
During her incumbency, Thompson said she has been committed to ensuring Athens County residents’ tax money is used responsibly by county government departments, even when it means she needs to confront those she works alongside.
“That can't dissuade me from doing my duty and my job,” Thompson said. “If I recognize fraud, or if I see abuse or waste, I'm going to call it out. So that's why we're here and that's why I hope to still be here.”
Wasserman, a local businessman and owner of the Pigskin Bar & Grill, currently serves as the Athens County treasurer and has served in that position since he was elected in 2018. Despite his affinity for his current position, Wasserman said he believes he could thrive as the county’s auditor.
“The auditor is the hub of the wheel of county government,” Wasserman said. “Virtually every financial transaction that happens anywhere in the county winds up at the Auditor's Office and you're really in the center of the storm. … I like sort of being in a position of trying to organize the chaos and the auditor's office is a vast portfolio of duties.”
The county auditor is responsible for monitoring the expenditures of the county government’s departments. The auditor is also the county’s chief property assessor and is in charge of conducting assessments of property values every six years.
The auditor also oversees the Weights and Measurements Division under the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which measures all consumer products sold by weight and measurement, such as produce at the grocery store and gas from fuel dispensaries.
Wasserman said he believes his experience in business and the treasurer’s office have prepared him to take on the seasoned incumbent Thompson. After two decades under Thompson’s management, the auditor’s office needs a change, Wasserman said.
“To have somebody staying around that long, they're just accumulating too much power and that just makes a very dangerous situation,” Wasserman said. “You also wind up with a calcified outlook on how things work. Everything's been done the same way 22 years—no change. There's not really any progressivism there. There's not really any new ideas, and I don't think that's healthy at all.”
Although Wasserman sees Thompson’s lengthy term in office as a negative, Thompson said she believes it serves as an indicator of how she has done in the position.
“I believe the people keep me in this office,” Thompson said. “This is what I'm supposed to be. This is what I'm supposed to be doing and people have confidence in knowing that I'm going to raise my hand and ask the obvious question and (government officials) are going to have to answer it.”
Thompson said although party affiliation should not matter in the auditor’s office, she believes her position as one of only two elected Republican officials in Athens County allows her to observe the county’s finances without obligations to fellow party members.
“When you don't have somebody else watching the money, and you don't allow anybody else to ask the question then there is not an opportunity for accountability,” Thompson said. “Most of the frauds that I've discovered, do you know how? Somebody's reported it to me. Do you know why? Because they couldn't report it to somebody else.”
Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University history professor and expert in history and politics, said the capability of a person in the auditor’s position does not rely on their political party. Voters in local elections also tend to disregard party affiliations more than they would when voting for those in state and national offices, Jellison said.
However, Jellison said in this particular election, Athens County voters may pay more attention to the candidate’s party due to the national political climate.
“I really do think if any time since I've lived in Athens, which is almost 30 years, that those party labels may play a role, it may be this year just because of the tone of just absolute disgust with the national Republican Party that I've been hearing from so many people here in Athens,” Jellison said.
Voters will decide whether party labels contribute to who will sit as the Athens County auditor for the next four years on Tuesday, and the history behind the auditor’s position will repeat or be reversed.