Koster defining new ombudsman role in county

EVERETT — The announcement about Snohomish County’s new ombudsman was barely out when requests for help started trickling in.

John Koster in December had accepted the role as an in-house, good-government watchdog after term limits forced him to leave his County Council job of 12 years. The first order of business: figuring out what an ombudsman is supposed to do when people call to report problems with county government.

“Citizens are our customers,” Koster said. “There’s somewhere to go if they don’t think they were treated fairly.”

Defining how that should work in real life required some thought. Before Koster had time to draft procedures, people started calling for help. As of this week, draft procedures for the office were still awaiting formal approval — so technically, he’s not yet fully open for business.

Six months in, though, Koster has fielded 64 complaints.

The most common problems, by far, involve land use and other planning issues. They accounted for more than 40 percent of the total.

Most callers are either stuck in the process or don’t know where to go. Anybody could be forgiven for some confusion when navigating a county bureaucracy that spans law enforcement, the courts, property tax collection, road-building, elections, flood control, building rules, code enforcement, marriage licenses, pet licenses and more.

“Our job is to offer advice on how to solve the problem, not necessarily to do it for them — give them options,” Koster said.

Sometimes, Koster can resolve constituents’ concerns by providing good information. In other cases, he researches arcane policies or sets up meetings with county staff. His office strives to protect confidentiality.

A complaint about Treasurer’s Office records spawned the ombudsman’s first investigation. While Koster found nothing amiss with the treasurer’s staff, he hopes the findings will help the county develop a better system for tracking documents.

In a best-case scenario, Koster believes the office can build up confidence in public service. In some instances, helping give people what they expect from government might prevent costly litigation later on.

County Executive John Lovick created the ombudsman’s office as part of the 2014 budget. The Democratic executive offered the new post to Koster, a Republican stalwart.

That was a shift for a three-time GOP congressional candidate whose name remains among the most trusted in local Republican circles.

“We can’t be partisan, so I can’t be involved in any of the political races this year,” Koster said. “We have to be very non-partisan and neutral.”

Once installed, Koster set about studying other ombudsman systems, particularly in King County , which has been running for more than 40 years and is part of that county’s charter.

Koster doesn’t have quite the resources as his counterpart to the south. His only extra staff is an administrative assistant who splits her time with other departments. Koster receives more than $100,000 per year in salary.

The King County office includes eight people — several of them with law degrees, ombudsman Amy Calderwood said. Over the years, its mandate has grown from administrative issues — similar to the proposed scope of Snohomish County’s office — to include ethics and whistle-blower complaints, as well as lobbyist disclosures.

Originally anticipated to open this spring, Snohomish County’s office has gotten a slower-than-expected start.

That owes largely to the March 22 Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people and struck a heavy blow to the local economy. Through the end of June, Koster spent much of each work week helping people from the slide area navigate the recovery process.

The County Council on Wednesday received a draft for how the office should run.

“The ombudsman shall be a person of recognized judgment, objectivity and integrity, who is well-equipped to analyze problems of law, administration, and public policy,” the document reads.

If adopted, elected leaders would appoint someone to the position for a five-year term. Removing the person from office would require at least four of five votes on the County Council. Koster is clear that he wants to get the office up and running, but has left open how long he’ll stay.

Lovick’s administration didn’t want the office to get bogged down with complaints from jail inmates, which will be handled through the jail’s own system. They also wanted to keep the office separate from other branches of county government, which could become the focus of scrutiny.

“I wanted it independent,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “I specifically wanted it to be independent from the executive and independent from the council. I wanted it to lie in between, so there couldn’t be undue influence either way.”

Koster expects to launch an ombudsman webpage on the county site once formal rules are in place. That should boost the office’s workload substantially.

“I suspect once people know we exist, we’ll be busy,” he said. “Really busy.”

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

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