For assessor-treasurer: Tim Farrell or Billie O’Brien

It might be hard to explain to an outsider why an office like assessor-treasurer is such a hot race in Pierce County this year.

You sort of have to live here.

The incumbent is Dale Washam – a perennially unsuccessful candidate who managed to get elected under a fluky ranked-choice system in 2008. It was a year in which many new voters weren’t aware of Washam’s long and checkered history in Pierce County.

That’s not the case today. A voter would have to have been holed up in an isolated cabin in the Cascades not to have heard about all the trouble Washam has caused. His incompetence and abuse of county employees have cost taxpayers millions. If he’s re-elected, he’ll keep ratcheting up the bill.

Fortunately, he has four respectable challengers in the Aug. 7 primary – any of whom would be a huge improvement. The top two vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 6 general election.

Three candidates are political veterans familiar to local voters: Pierce County Councilman Tim Farrell and former Tacoma City Council members Mike Lonergan and Spiro Manthou.

The fourth, Billie O’Brien, is the non-politician in the field. But she must have at least some political savvy. As the administrative manager handling non-appraisal duties in Washam’s office, she’s managed to survive despite running against her boss and supporting last year’s unsuccessful effort to recall him.

Of the four candidates seeking to replace Washam, we think that Farrell and O’Brien are the two best candidates to face off in November. And their differing backgrounds and qualifications present voters with a real choice, depending on what they think the office needs to thrive in a post-Washam world.

O’Brien, a Summit resident, is the insider familiar with the inner workings of the department – whose main duty is to assess property for tax purposes – and its staff. That knowledge means she would have virtually no learning curve on Day 1.

O’Brien has done appraisals, she’s managed more than 35 employees during her 21 years with the office, and she’s worked closely with several other county departments as well as the state Department of Revenue. We think she would easily step into the top job.

However, there’s a plausible argument to be made that the troubled department needs someone from outside coming in with fresh eyes. The staff has been through the ringer with Washam, and voters who think it needs a newcomer’s approach should consider Farrell.

The Tacoma resident, who is being term-limited from his seat on the County Council, has a master’s degree in business administration and has been taking appraisal training courses given by the state Department of Revenue to prepare for the job. He’s bright and energetic. A Democrat, he has been endorsed by several prominent local Republicans as well as members of his own party.

Also running are Lonergan, the executive director of Youth Marine Foundation and past director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and Manthou, general services manager at Bates Technical College.

Lonergan has excellent credentials, and Manthou would be satisfactory. But we think O’Brien and Farrell are the top choices. Both are likely to improve the morale and culture of a department suffering an acute case of Washam-induced shellshock.