Maria Iturriaga retires after 16 years as county clerk
By Samantha White
On Oct. 21, 1961, Maria Iturriaga arrived in the United States with her mother and younger brother (Jose Rementeria). She was 13 years old.
The next day, she attended her first day of seventh grade at Burns Elementary School, which is now Slater Elementary School.
A Basque emigrant from Spain, Iturriaga did not know anything about the United States, and she didn’t speak any English.
Her father immigrated to the United States in 1954 and began working for the McLean ranches in Fields.
He later went to work for the Edward Hines Lumber Company, which is when he sent for his family.
Iturriaga said it was “very, very hard” to leave her native country and come to a foreign land. “All I could do was cry. I do not wish that on anybody, not even my worst enemy, if I had one,” she said.
However, she said she made life-long friends in middle school who helped her adjust to a new country.
On May 24, 1967, just a few days before she graduated from Burns Union High School, Iturriaga became a United States citizen. She said she remembers the date because it was her mother’s birthday.
After high school, Iturriaga attended Links Business College in Boise, Idaho, where she studied to become an executive secretary.
After a year of college, she returned to Harney County and went to work for the Burns Times-Herald. She then worked in the office at Harney County Hospital, which is where she met her husband, Claudio.
“He was also from the ‘Old Country,’” Iturriaga said.
The couple was married in 1969, and their son was born in 1970. Iturriaga stayed home to raise her son until 1983, which is when she started working for Harney County.
“I was a floater,” she said, describing her job duties.
From 1983 until 1988, Iturriaga worked in many offices and in many positions. She began working at the district attorney’s office, but worked in the treasurer’s office and for the department of mental health, as needed. She said she worked a few hours or a few days in one place and then moved to wherever else she was needed.
Iturriaga said she moved around so much that whenever she answered the phone, she had to stop and think, “Where am I today?”
She first ran for the county clerk position in 1996 when previous clerk, Dolores Swisher, retired. She said her decision to run was “just natural.”
“I was working [at the courthouse], and I knew the job,” Iturriaga said.
Iturriaga ran unopposed, but said she was “overjoyed” the first time she was elected.
Iturriaga has served as the county clerk for 16 years, running unopposed four times.
“The people in Harney County are great. They kept voting for me. I can’t begin to express my gratitude. My time in office has been really a pleasure,” she said.
Iturriaga said the highlight of her career was when she was elected the president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks (OACC). She was the first representative from Harney County to hold the office, serving as president of the association from 2009 until 2010.
According to its website, “The Association of County Clerks is comprised of clerks, recorders, elected officials, or any other officials preforming like duties and who are functioning as the elected or appointed county officials for a county government.” There can only be one voting member from each county at any time, but any deputy or assistant of a voting member can apply to be an associate member. Individuals can also be elected to honorary membership in the association.
Prior to being elected president, Iturriaga served as the secretary, treasurer and vice president of the association.
“I went on through the chairs,” she said.
In August 2010, Iturriaga worked with former Chief Deputy Clerk Derrin “Dag” Robinson to host the OACC Annual Conference in Harney County. Iturriaga said representatives from 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties were in attendance. She said in addition to county clerks, several deputy clerks attended, bringing the total number of people in attendance to about 195. The conference was also attended by vendors who came from as far away as New York City, N.Y. to sell their products.
Iturriaga said the conference was a “good boost” to the local economy, as those in attendance patronized local restaurants and motels.
“It’s a lot of work to put something like that on,” Iturriaga said, explaining that Harney County does not have a large events center.
Iturriaga said she liked “so many things” about being the Harney County clerk. She said staff refers to the county clerk’s office as the “happy office” because county clerks issue and record marriage licenses, property deeds and passports. She explained that people come to the office when they are getting married, buying a house, or taking a trip.
Staff in the county clerk’s office also announce the results of elections. “This can be happy or sad,” Iturriaga said, explaining that the county clerk delivers good news to candidates who win elections, but bad news to those that do not.
Iturriaga said her job has evolved over the years due to the implementation of new laws, especially those regarding elections. County clerks are very involved in the election process, and their duties extend far beyond announcing the results.
“We take elections very seriously, and I think we do a great job,” Iturriaga said. “I wish people would just come up and watch what we do so they would understand. There is no room for mistakes.”
Iturriaga said Oregon’s vote-by mail system requires county clerks to verify signatures on voters’ ballots, which is a lot of work. Votes are counted by a machine, which is accredited through a certification process.
“Certification of the machine is open to the public, but people rarely come to see our process,” Iturriaga said.
However, despite the demands of the job, Iturriaga said, “I don’t have very many complaints. I made many friends here. The people are wonderful.” She added that the county court always gave her everything that she needed in terms of her budget.
But after serving as the Harney County Clerk for more than a decade and a half, Iturriaga announced her retirement.
“I think it was time. I truly believe we should move over for the young people,” Iturriaga said. She added that her husband has been retired for a few years now.
Robinson was sworn in as the new Harney County Clerk Jan. 7.
“I leave the job in such good hands,” Iturriaga said. “Dag knows the job, and he will do great.” She added that she believes Robinson will also be elected the president of the OACC someday.
Iturriaga said her plans for retirement include some traveling. She and her husband are considering traveling to Arizona this winter, and they hope to make more frequent trips to San Diego, Calif., which is where their son lives. They are also considering traveling to Spain to visit with family.
But Iturriaga admits that she has mixed emotions about retiring.
“This is my family,” she said regarding courthouse staff. “I have been here a long time.”
Iturriaga said she was the third of three consecutive Harney County clerks who were “full-blooded Basque,” citing Avel Diaz and Dolores Swisher who served before her.
Yet, considering her metamorphosis from the 13-year-old girl who didn’t speak English, it may be hard to disagree with what Iturriaga said in a meeting of the county court, held Dec. 5.
“It has been quite a ride,” she said. “It is amazing for a little girl to come from the ‘Old Country’ and be county clerk.”