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Ward County Auditor-Treasurer Devra Smestad passes baton to successor Marisa Haman

Auditor-treasurer passes baton to successor

Jill Schramm/MDN Outgoing Ward County Auditor-Treasurer Devra Smestad, left, and incoming Auditor-Treasurer Marisa Haman display past county budget books Aug. 3. They are working with commissioners on a new book for 2021.

The Ward County Auditor/Treasurer’s Office is undergoing a transition.

Auditor/Treasurer Devra Smestad, who officially retires Aug. 31, has been gradually passing the baton to former deputy auditor Marisa Haman since early June. Haman came into the position with some experience in taxes and budgeting and having previously helped with elections.

“I’ve dealt more with the end picture, so now I’m just trying to fill in the beginning picture, which I’ve seen pieces of but not done fully myself. I’ve attended the auditor/treasurer conferences with Devra since I had been deputy,” she said. “That helps a lot, just learning from the people who are in the positions and networking.”

Smestad said having a network of counties and treasurer and auditor associations to provide support has been important during her 16 years in office.

“You just put the question out there and you get 53 answers,” she said.

Smestad, of Burlington, was Burlington’s city auditor until joining the Ward County Auditor/Treasurer’s Office on April 1, 2004. She worked alongside former Auditor/Treasurer Dave Senger for about three months and recalled that the June election that year was the first with new voting machines.

“My first one by myself was a presidential of 2004, and we had bomb threats, closing down two precincts for a couple hours while they sniffed and around and looked for bombs,” Smestad said. “And 2:30 in the morning we hadn’t heard from one of the precincts north of town, and we had no way of contacting them. They weren’t contacting us, so I had to send a deputy out to check on them.”

It turned out the election workers were having difficulty getting their election data to balance. The phone had been in a separate, locked office, and cell phones weren’t ubiquitous like today.

“We made a quick change there. Somebody among the poll workers had to have a phone so we could communicate back and forth. Now, I think they all have one,” Smestad said.

Smestad’s last election in June was even more eventful as an all-mail election.

“That was very labor intensive, but we made it work,” she said. “The bottom line is, as much work as we put into it, the results were still there; the election still happened and there were no hiccups, and again, brand new equipment.”

The new equipment acquired for use by voters wasn’t employed in June but will be in November.

“Luckily, it’s pretty user-friendly,” said Haman, who will be managing her first election after working closely with Smestad in June. The coronavirus pandemic has added new considerations for safety precautions, and the office already has more than 10,000 absentee ballot applications in the queue.

Haman came to work in the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office as a property tax clerk in September 2012. She became deputy auditor in October 2013.

She previously had worked at ING. A Westhope native, she attended Minot State University and North Dakota State University, returning to Minot in 2004.

During her tenure with Ward County, Smestad served in various positions with the North Dakota Association of Counties. She served a year as board president and a year as past president, leaving the board last October.

Her tenure also has been highlighted by two major computer system changes – in 2008 and 2015-16 – and a move from the courthouse to the new Ward County Administration Building at the end of 2015. Smestad said the move couldn’t have come at a worse time because tax statements had just gone out and taxpayers were coming in to pay. The office kept two locations, set up a drop box and promoted payments online to make it easier for taxpayers.

Movers brought records from storage and placed them randomly on shelves or stacked on pallets in the new building. Haman said having the county building closed for a time due to COVID-19 was beneficial in one way. Because staff weren’t assisting the public at the counter, they had time to organize the final items still waiting to be sorted from the move.

Smestad said the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office doesn’t have periods of down time, and that was especially true from 2012 to 2016, when there were 13 special elections.

Smestad said she leaves with no particular memory that stands out, but she is most proud of the ability of her office to meet all the legislative directives and mandates over the years. She also speaks highly of the office staff and her confidence in leaving the office in the hands of Haman and other workers.

The Ward County auditor/treasurer oversees seven staff workers. Information technology and human resources once were part of the office but in recent years have been established as separate departments.

A role of the auditor/treasurer is helping residents better understand their government. Smestad said that can involve walking a disgruntled taxpayer through the tax process to explain a tax bill or assisting the public with questions about getting on a commission agenda, petitioning for a road or special assessment project or getting a gaming or liquor permit. Property information and tax questions often start with the auditor’s office.

Much of what happens in the county is reflected in the Auditor/Treasurer’s Office.

“Everything comes through here, and we touch every single department on a regular basis. It’s kind of the hub of the county,” Smestad said.

She said it will be refreshing to no longer schedule her personal life around county commission meetings, elections, budgeting, tax statements and other busy times in the office.

Smestad said home remodeling projects and spending more time with the grandchildren are on her agenda upon retirement. She and her husband are weighing additional options for staying busy down the road.

Haman, who has three young children, said it’s a busy life at home and work for her, but she considers it great times. She sought the auditor/treasurer’s position because she felt ready to challenge herself with something new.

“I want to get involved more in the budgeting,” Haman said. “I like numbers. I like puzzles. So I’m excited to delve into that more and just grow at the county.”

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or call 1-800-735-3229. You also can send email suggestions to eogden@minotdailynews.com.)

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