County elections chief to retire in April

His leadership widely praised during 31-year tenure

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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This will be Tim Likness' final presidential election overseeing the votes of Clark County.

Likness, the man in charge of Clark County elections for the past 31 years, says he'll retire in April.

He's still got a February election left, and he expects a few school levies to be on that ballot. But as far as the big ones, the captivating and enthralling November general elections, this coming Tuesday's will be his last.

Likness, 61, was hired as an elections assistant in 1979. He was promoted to the top job of elections supervisor in 1981.

That's a career spanning the elections of five different men to the presidency, a narrow 2004 recount of Washington's gubernatorial election, and a 1994 U.S. House of Representatives race that saw Linda Smith ride a write-in win from the primary to a position in Congress.

He's been awake until 6 a.m. counting ballots, and he's recounted and checked more ballots than he could even guess at.

Elections are, hopefully, not defined by the process. The ballot mailing and vote counting is often critically particular and, to many, pretty boring. But Likness is fascinated by it, and he admits he probably always will be.

"There are really two parts to it," Likness said. "The administration, which I am on, and the politics, which I'm not. You don't want any bias on the administration side. You want the public to have faith in this process."

Politically minded folks in the county agree that Likness has always been focused on the process.

"I think he's been outstanding in every respect," said Dan Ogden, a Democrat who has worked with Likness for years through the certified elections observer process. "Let me say that he is the most conscientious public servant I have ever known. He's very capable, he's honest, and he's very knowledgeable about the election process. Probably more knowledgeable than anyone I know."

'Hard shoes to fill'

Mike Gaston, a Republican who has also been involved with the certified elections observer process for years, agreed.

"Those will be extremely hard shoes to fill," Gaston said. "I know of no one with a temperament and qualifications that he has, that are any better suited to the job he's got. He's extremely meticulous and the checks and balances he's put in place are exceptional."

Likness is humble about his time in the role. He says he was simply looking for a job when he was hired in 1979.

"I was just unemployed at the time," Likness said. "I learned this all by the seat of my pants. Honestly, it's still like that. You learn by doing."

And he insists everything will be fine without him.

"We have good people here," Likness said. "It's been a long, interesting run. I never set out to work in elections, but I had the desire to get the job done."

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said he believes the office will be fine without Likness, but only because of a few years' worth of preparation.

Kimsey said several years back he heard a rumor Likness was going to retire.

"I heard it on a Friday, and it ruined my weekend," Kimsey said. "That was one of the worst days of my career."

The rumor wasn't true, but the office did begin preparations for Likness' departure. In the past two years it hired Cathie Garber in the role of assistant elections supervisor and Rich Cooper as an office administrator. A hiring process will be conducted to replace Likness, but many believe Garber is a top candidate for the job.

"Two years ago I would have expressed great nervousness about Tim not being there to guide the ship," Kimsey said. "But we have made a couple of great hires in the past couple years, and they are doing a fantastic job. I have complete confidence Clark County elections office will continue to perform at the highest level."

Likness kind of shrugs when asked if he'll miss work. But he can answer definitively when asked what he's planning to do in retirement.

"Oh, lots of things," he says, smiling. Likness plans to do some traveling, to some of the East Coast states and perhaps parts of Scandinavia. He has a few house projects to get to, and the free time will now be filled with volunteer efforts.

Still, he says if there is a question at the Clark County elections office once he's gone, they know who to call.

"I said if they need me to come in and take a look at something, I would," Likness said. "So I'll probably still pay attention to elections, but still, only the administration side."

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov;erik.hidle@columbian.com.