Athens County Treasurer Ric Wasserman, a Democrat, will challenge longtime Republican incumbent Jill Thompson for county auditor this November, reprising their matchup in 2002.
In that election, Thompson defeated Wasserman 62.55% to 37.45%.
Athens resident Thompson, 53, was appointed auditor in 2000; she seeks a sixth full term as auditor.
“There isn’t somebody who’s going to be able to step into my role and do what I do,” Thompson said, calling a decision not to run “a disservice to Athens County.”
“I’ve lived here all my life—this is my home,” Thompson said. “So, I decided to run for another term because I felt like I truly am the best person for this job, and I do have a passion for government.”
Wasserman, 57 of Coolville, co-owns the Pigskin Bar and Grille on Court Street in Athens. His website says he has owned all or part of six businesses over the past 30 years. Wasserman was appointed and then elected as county treasurer in 2018.
“Everything in my background and experience lends really well to the auditor’s office,” Wasserman said. “The auditor’s office is kind of like the center of the wheel of county government. Every financial transaction at one point or another runs through the auditor’s office. And I’m a financial guy.”
Wasserman and Thompson have worked closely together during his time as treasurer, as both are tasked with serving on the county’s budget commission and board of revision.
According to the County Auditors’ Association of Ohio, the auditor’s responsibilities include issuing dog licenses, ensuring fair appraisal and assessment of real estate, disbursing tax dollars to county agencies, bookkeeping for elected officials and county agencies, and more.
Support our work to deliver independent local news for Athens County
Like what you are reading?
Auditor as watchdog?
Thompson said the auditor’s role is to “call out wrongs or identify abuse in the government,” adding that it is important the auditor be “someone that can be independent in that role.”
“If we don’t call out wrongs, or if we don’t question expenditures or things like that, there’s nobody else to do it,” Thompson said. “You have to have the right person in there, and they have to be willing to stand up to somebody and say, ‘This doesn’t look like right; this doesn’t smell right’—and be an advocate for the homeowner or the citizen or the taxpayer.”
Thompson said that during her time as auditor she has identified and worked to address numerous discrepancies within county agencies. One of only two Republicans in county government, Thompson suggested that electing a Democrat to the role would lessen the auditor’s effectiveness.
“When you have one-party rule anywhere in government, it stops being about people and it begins being about politics, and that’s when I feel like it’s dangerous,” Thompson said.
Wasserman dismissed the argument around party affiliation as “a complete red herring.”
“There isn’t a Democrat or Republican way to distribute tax money or collect tax money,” Wasserman said. “What it really is, is about getting everybody pulling in the same direction.”
Thompson agreed that the auditor’s position is fundamentally nonpartisan.
“There isn’t a Democrat or Republican way to do my job—unless you’re a Democrat, and it’s someone who is a political partisan,” Thompon said. “I can’t imagine that any questions would be asked about expenditures or that any transparency or accountability would exist.”
Although Wasserman said “the auditor has a role in preventing fraud and making sure that the bills that are being submitted are legitimate bills,” he views Thompson as overstepping.
“The auditor has this idea that it’s her against everybody else, and that she’s there to be the inspector general of the county,” Wasserman said, adding that these responsibilities fall more under the purview of the state auditor. “I would not use my power as county auditor to micromanage or second guess the decisions made by other elected officials or independent organizations that have their own board.”
Wasserman said he would “take a different tack and a different attitude toward relationships around the county,” adding that “it’s critically important to have good relationships” with officials of townships, villages, school districts and county agencies.
Transparency and technology
Thompson said her proudest accomplishments as auditor include enhancing the transparency and accessibility of her office, especially by using technology “so taxpayers, students and homeowners could actually do business with our office in the comfort of their own home.”
Thompson said she worked from the time she was first appointed to modernize the auditor’s office, including by ensuring employees had access to and were using computers, digitizing property records, and switching to a cloud-based system, which helped prepare the office for a smooth transition to remote work during the pandemic.
Wasserman acknowledged Thompson’s accomplishments regarding transparency, specifically noting that the county’s checkbooks are now available online. However, Wasserman pointed out that this happened only after he announced his candidacy, with transparency as a major campaign issue.
“I really feel like we should have been there a lot sooner, but I’m very happy to see we’re on there now,” Wasserman said.
Athens County became the 47th Ohio county to join OhioCheckbook.gov earlier this year. The online checkbook tool was launched in June 2020.
Wasserman said the county still has further to go to advance transparency. The county specifically needs to “peel the curtain back” on the process of evaluating properties, he said.
“If I were auditor we would have meetings in every community when those valuations are released, so that people could come in and discuss the valuations of their property with people who made them, and give information that the evaluators may not have had,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman and Thompson have clashed over management of the Athens County Land Bank, specifically around an expedited foreclosure process the land bank uses to take over abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.
Wasserman—who referred to the disagreement in a recent Tweet—said the auditor’s opposition to expedited foreclosures gets in the way of the land bank’s work to improve quality of life in the county.
“If you lived in a house on a street where there were four or five abandoned properties you would want your county government to try to do something about that if it were possible to do it,” Wasserman said.
Thompson said she does not oppose foreclosing on properties but takes issue with the expedited process, which she described as unfair to property owners.
“Athens County is one of the poorest counties in the state of Ohio, so to make your number-one priority when you come in as the tax collector to take people’s homes—that offends me,” she said. “I feel strongly that we should always be erring on the side of the human, and we should not be pulling out all the stops and compromising due process.”
Wasserman said Thompson’s “crusade against the process” is not merited, because the process is only used on abandoned, tax-delinquent properties.
“It’s only abandoned properties, and I have voted over and over again at the Board of Revision to hold abandoned property owners accountable,” Wasserman said.
Thompson said she has concerns about the multiple hats Wasserman wears in the process locally. Wasserman serves as treasurer, land bank chair, and a member of the Board of Revision, where he votes on the expedited foreclosures the land bank pursues. Thompson has described this as a conflict of interest.
“The way that things are being done is ripe for abuse,” Thompson said.
Thompson said none of this constitutes opposition to revitalization.
“I just think there’s a process for it, and we shouldn’t be going through this expedited process,” Thompson said.
Wasserman said he does not object to utilizing the standard process in normal circumstances, but added the expedited process is sometimes necessary to secure time-bound grant funding—which he said was the case in the property that was the subject of his recent Tweet.
To learn more about the candidates, click here to view a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County.
We are interested about hearing news in our community! Let us know what's happening!
Get in touch and share a story!