County Council keeps tech staff under auditor in 3-2 vote

EVERETT — A divided Snohomish County Council voted Wednesday to extend an emergency ordinance that put tech workers under the county auditor.

The 3-2 vote revisited last year’s decision to quarantine the information services department from then-County Executive Aaron Reardon, over abuses of power by his office. It gives Auditor Carolyn Weikel control of the tech department through 2017, rather than returning it to the executive’s office in February 2015.

Though outwardly cordial, the latest action exposed new political rifts that have emerged since Reardon left office last year. It pitted current Executive John Lovick, who pledged to restore integrity to the executive’s office, against Weikel, who agreed to safeguard public records while Reardon and his staff remained under investigation.

Council Chairman Dave Somers said his vote in Weikel’s favor acknowledged her role as a supervisor of the tech department, not just a caretaker.

“I’m very uncomfortable and sorry if this is perceived as a lack of trust in the executive’s office, because it’s not,” Somers said.

Lovick can veto the ordinance, but said he’s not sure whether he’ll exercise that authority.

“I’m disappointed with the vote, but it’s a process of our government and I’ll deal with it,” he said.

Weikel and Lovick sat side-by-side across the table from County Council members on Monday to make their respective cases for who should control the tech department, which has a budget of nearly $20 million and 85 positions.

Weikel pleaded for more time to follow through with management and policy changes she committed to making last year. They include mending fences with other county departments, improving the way the county handles public records requests and examining data-storage costs.

“If you truly want the changes that you asked for a year ago, I need more time,” she said.

Lovick, who was appointed in June, countered that with the county leadership crisis over, the tech department should be returned where it belongs.

“I truly believe that those problems are no longer there,” he said.

Like the facilities department responsible for maintaining county buildings, Lovick reasoned, the tech department serves the entire county and fits best with the executive’s administrative duties.

Weikel swayed councilmen Terry Ryan and Ken Klein, who were elected last fall and not part of last year’s vote.

“The county auditor clearly articulated what she wanted to do with the (department of information services) and why she needed more time to complete that job,” Ryan said.

The “no” votes came from council members Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan — the people who last year led the effort to snatch the department from Reardon.

“I don’t know what the rush is for an extension with one year left,” Sullivan wondered aloud.

During the hearing, Sullivan and others repeatedly praised the county’s tech workforce. They stressed the department isn’t broken.

The council in 2013 moved to impose emergency protections on the tech department the week after The Herald published stories detailing a scheme of political payback from the executive’s office against Reardon’s political enemies. Records show that former executive staffers, particularly aide Kevin Hulten, targeted elected officials and county staff through voluminous records requests submitted under fictitious names. Hulten also has been linked to social media attacks and campaign-finance complaints against his boss’s rivals. The mischief was carried out on county computers, often during normal office hours.

Snohomish County leaders demanded a criminal investigation.

Wright, who led the council last year, said the criminal investigation was her primary motivation in entrusting the county’s computer systems to Weikel, a job Wright said the auditor had performed well.

“We wanted to make sure that the investigation happened, and that it was clean, quarantined and the integrity was maintained,” she said.

The King County Sheriff’s Office agreed to investigate the case for Snohomish County. A detective’s findings, released late last year under the Public Records Act, show Hulten tried to scrub data from a county laptop used in the attack scheme. The detective concluded the evidence at least supports a criminal evidence-tampering charge.

It’s up to Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich to decide whether any charges are justified. Weyrich said Wednesday his office continues to review the case.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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