By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
Nearly three weeks ago, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon told business and political leaders that other elected officials had made false accusations about county employees to score political points against him.
Other Snohomish County officeholders say they don’t know what he was talking about.
But county leaders who disagree with Reardon’s version of the facts are reluctant to challenge him openly. They say they don’t want to be drawn into petty, public arguments.
Reardon framed his speech as a peace offering. But even as he vowed to smooth things over, his remarks drew attention to past conflicts with other county officials.
“Political differences between elected officials is one thing; but elected officials reaching down and accusing professional employees of malfeasance without any evidence, any record or any supporting data is something altogether different,” Reardon told a crowd of local business and political heavyweights at a Feb. 4 Everett Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “How do you think professional employees in our departments feel when politicians fabricate stories to tear them down in hopes of a political score?”
Reardon did not name names. He said he wanted to move forward and improve communication.
But had elected officials engaged in malicious attacks? And for what purpose?
When asked to identify those who made unfair accusations, members of Reardon’s staff came up with contradictory answers, although both had to do with criticism of the county’s Department of Information Services.
Spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said no elected officials brought direct accusations of wrongdoing against employees. The malfeasance allegations, Schwarzen claimed, could be read into county Treasurer Kirke Sievers’ comments in a news article.
In the article, Sievers expressed frustration — shared by other county leaders — about the lack of communication and level of service provided by information services. Reardon’s office oversees the department, which is now the subject of a $50,000 performance audit and could be moved under the control of the county auditor.
Another member of Reardon’s staff said Schwarzen’s explanation was wrong and hadn’t been cleared with higher-ups.
“I can state with certainty that nothing said by Mr. Sievers was referred to in the speech as making a claim of malfeasance,” said Brian Parry, an executive director.
Reardon did use another part of his speech to attack Sievers, though not by name. He mentioned an elected official twice missing scheduled meetings with information services director Larry Calter.
Sievers, a former county councilman, said he couldn’t remember the meetings and wondered why Reardon would mention them in his speech without first calling him.
“I would think you’d call me up and say, ‘Kirke, where were you?’ ” Sievers said. “Never a word from Aaron.”
The treasurer said he has put the episode behind him and is trying to focus on more important issues such as the coming tax season.
Parry at first declined to say whose criticism had prompted Reardon’s malfeasance remarks. When pressed, he said it was Councilman John Koster.
That occurred, Parry said, “whether explicit or carelessly implied,” when Koster questioned Calter about information services buying and testing software for a countywide e-mail archiving system. Koster and other councilmen asked how much time and resources the county spent. Later, Reardon’s office gave the cost for the now-dormant system as more than $87,000.
“And you did all of this knowing that it wasn’t in line with our current policies?” Koster asked in an operations committee meeting last month. “That piece of it alone to me is a little bit egregious.”
Reardon’s staff made several attempts to assert that Koster’s statement, in effect, accused Calter of malfeasance. The Herald’s request for an explanation brought several e-mails from Parry. Another executive director, attorney Peter Camp, also called to quote from a law dictionary. They said that Koster’s use of the word “egregious” was tantamount to a claim of wrongdoing.
Koster said he wasn’t sure how Reardon’s staff could label his criticism of the department’s actions as an accusation of potential criminal wrongdoing. These kind of petty arguments get in the way of serious issues like putting people back to work, Koster said.
“We ought to get beyond this he-said-she-said nonsense and get to the larger policy discussion,” he said.
Some councilmen also have grumbled privately about Reardon using his Feb. 4 speech to talk about measures he has vetoed.
An analysis of Reardon’s speech prepared by council staff takes issue with the way Reardon described six veto examples. In one case, he said a majority of the council had tried to increase taxes by $160 million for a new county building when they actually wanted to put the issue on the ballot.
Councilmen said the way Reardon described the vetoes bothered them, but they didn’t want to get involved in a public spat over the issue.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.