Sulzner retires as county auditor, after 30 years with Jones Co.

After 30 years working for Jones County, 26 as county auditor, Janine Sulzner is retiring at the end of the year. Sulzner has seen so many changes in her time working for the county, as well as many hurdles throughout 2020. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     After 30 years of working for Jones County, 26 of those years as county auditor, Janine Sulzner is anticipating retirement notably after all that 2020 had to bring.

     “I have met a ton of great people in Jones County over the years,” expressed Sulzner as she reflected on her years of service and dedication, “met and worked with. I really appreciate their support.”

     Sulzner’s path to being appointed county auditor is pretty simple. She started working for the county in February 1990 as a deputy auditor.

     “I was hired to do payroll and vert registration,” Sulzner said. “There was an opening for a deputy aditor.”

     In January 1994, she moved over to the Treasurer’s Office as a deputy tax treasurer.

     “When the auditor resigned, I was appointed auditor on Sept. 1, 1994,” she recalled.

     Sulzner only spent six months working in the Treasurer’s Office before she found her calling.

     “I love the accounting part particularly,” she said of just one aspect of the job.

     Sulzner was interesting in being appointed auditor due to the experience she gained as a deputy and the variety of work she would be doing.

     “There’s just a great variety,” she said. “More so than any other office in the county.”

     Sulzner has high hopes for newly-elected County Auditor Whitney Hein. With so much longevity stemming from the Auditor’s Office, Sulzner sees a smooth transition. Both Gwyn Gapinski and Kim Sorgenfrey have been in that office since the mid-1990s. Michele Lubben and Vicki Starn came in during the early 2000s.

     Looking back on how much the role of county auditor has changed through the years, as well as the responsibilities associated with the Auditor’s Office, Sulzner said the biggest change has been technology.

     “It changes in everything we touch,” she said.

     Technology has also changed the ways in which elections are conducted, another huge role of the Auditor’s Office.

     “Election administration, it’s amazing how it’s changed,” said Sulzner. “The biggest change with the most impact was when we changed to Election Day (voter) registration in 2008.”

     Prior to that, voters had to be registered to vote 10 days before Election Day. Allowing voters to register the day of hasn’t really increased voter turnout, as one might think. But it has created a lot more work for the poll workers and Auditor’s Office.

     “Fortunately, right after that, we got the electronic pollbooks (laptops),” noted Sulzner. “That has helped the job tremendously I don’t know if I would still have poll workers any more if we still had to do it by paper.”

     There is still a list on paper of every voter in Jones County at each precinct as a backup just in case the computers go down.

     “We’re always ready,” said Sulzner of what could go wrong on Election Day.

     Sticking with election, another change has been the process in which ballots are counted, going from hand-counted to machine-tabulated.

     Sulzner recalled during the 1990 Primary Election, the Anamosa/Cass Township precinct had to wait until 3 a.m. before their election results came in.

     “The auditor at that time said, ‘That’s it. We’re going to machine-counted ballots.’”

     Also looking back, Sulzner said early on in her career, there used to be a 6-by-10-foot chalkboard in the hallway of the courthouse that was used to report election results per precinct.

     “We got the results from the polling places and someone would go out there with chalk and fill it in,” she said.

     When Sulzner worked as a deputy auditor, all of the ballots were brought to the Auditor’s Office and put through a scanner.

     “I operated that big central scanner,” said Sulzner.

     Any time the machine broke down, it took longer to tabulate results. Sulzner said there were a ton of people waiting in the lobby of the courthouse for election results when the machine took a dive.

     “They were up the stairs, looking through windows. Talk about pressure. Thankfully we don’t use that machine anymore.”

     Now, even on a general election night, you might find less than a handful of people hanging out at the courthouse for results.

     “People can just go online,” said Sulzner. “We put all of the results online.”

     The 2020 primary and general elections were unlike anything Sulzner had ever experienced as an election administrator.

     “These were the most challenging,” she said. “Primarily because of the accommodations we had to make with COVID.”

     So not only was Sulzner seeing record voter turnout, registrations, and requests for absentee ballots, but the pandemic threw everyone for a loop during a high-profile election season.

     Sulzner said there was so many voters who were misinformed about what they were receiving in the mail; absentee ballot request forms, not absentee ballots.

     “There was so much misinformation on social media,” she said. “It’s very frustrating as an election administrator dealing with that.

     “People asked why we were sending ballots to deceased people. Why did someone get five ballots? They never got five ballots; they got one ballot. They might have submitted five applications.”

     Sulzner said it felt as though her office and the poll workers had a big bruise on them stemming from the elections.

     “We didn’t do anything wrong. We were doing our job and we were doing our job correctly. But people who don’t know what’s going on are putting the bruise out there and putting that fear in people’s heads that we’re not doing it right.”

     Sulzner said U.S. voters tend to take their right and privilege to vote for granted. She said people in other countries risk their lives to cast a ballot.

     “They don’t realize what a great privilege was have,” she said.

     Another big part of Sulzner’s job is presiding over board of supervisor meetings, taking minutes, and relaying necessary information to the board as they conduct their weekly meeting.

     “When I first started as a deputy, there was no one in the board room with the board,” she said. “When the board was ready to make a motion, they would call the Auditor’s Office and whoever was assigned to the board would come in, take the motion, and leave.”

     It wasn’t until six months after her appointment that then-Supervisor Leo Cook inquired about bringing the auditor back into the board room for the duration of their meetings.

     “It’s extremely helpful to know, to get the bigger picture of what’s going on throughout the county as a business,” Sulzner said of taking an active role in the board meetings. “Their decisions impact what we do.”

     The board meetings also used to last most of the day versus just a couple of hours in the morning now.

     Sulzner said she’s enjoyed working with all of the various county supervisors throughout the years.

     Looking at all that 2020 had to offer in terms of additional work for the county, one might think this year alone prompted Sulzner to retire. It was actually something she’d considered four years ago. However, the headache that was 2020 likely didn’t help.

     “This spring was just awful,” she said. “There were days where I had 100 e-mails just sitting there that I couldn’t even get to.”

     You had COVID-19, the courthouse HVAC project, the courthouse window/door project, two record-breaking elections, and the derecho.

     “The derecho fell into my lap at home,” said Sulzner of the damage to her home and property. On top of everything at work, her home took a backseat.

     During the pandemic, Sulzner was adamant that the courthouse remain open and that voters had an equal opportunity to vote early in-person.

     “The building was shut down but we carried ballots to how many voters (in their cars in the courthouse parking lot) so they could vote,” said Sulzner. “I made the public statement that we are the public’s house, and we are going to be open to serve the public.”

     As Hein prepares to take over as county auditor, Sulzner knows she’ll do just fine.

     “She’s going to do things differently, but she’s going to do fine.”

     Sulzner said the county budget does allow for her continued guidance if needed following Jan. 1, 2021.

     With two new county supervisors elected in November, Sulzner has hopes for an attentive board.

     “That’s a good thing,” she said. “I know Jeff (Swisher) and John (Schlarmann) are chomping at the bit to get started; they’re excited.”

     She also urges county officials to practice patience under a new auditor.

     “Certainly she’ll (Hein) make some changes and that’s good. There’s probably some things she needs to make changes to.”

     Sulzner gives a huge thanks to her staff and all of the poll workers she’s worked with over the years.

     “There is no way I could have done this job without that incredible staff and poll workers. It just doesn’t happen.”

     She also praises the current elected officials for their support and longevity, wanting to see Jones County succeed.

     Sulzner got a bit emotional noting how much time, energy, effort, hard work, and dedication she’s put into her job over the years.

     “I need to enjoy my life. I have really given my life to this job; and it’s time.”


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