Koster to be first-ever county ombudsman

EVERETT — John Koster didn’t spend much time looking for work.

The term-limited Snohomish County councilman is set to become the county’s first-ever ombudsman at the start of the new year.

In that role, the Republican from Arlington will get to be a trailblazer, tasked with creating from scratch an office that looks into citizens’ concerns about county government.

“One thing he’s known for is constituent work,” Deputy Executive Mark Ericks said. “He takes pride, when somebody has a problem and comes to his office, in solving that problem.”

County Executive John Lovick, a Democrat, created the ombudsman’s job as part of the 2014 budget. Lovick, the former county sheriff, was appointed in June to replace the scandal-dogged former executive, Aaron Reardon, who resigned in May.

Creating the ombudsman’s position is part of Lovick’s attempt to restore public confidence in county government.

While Koster and Lovick are from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the executive administration didn’t hesitate to consider the conservative Koster for the job.

Ericks said Koster’s council colleagues — all four Democrats — commended his fairness. Koster, Ericks recalled, has a ready response when they discussed the position: “‘Potholes don’t care whether they’re fixed by a Democrat or a Republican.’”

The Snohomish County Charter Review Commission weighed the idea of an independent ombudsman in 1986, 1996, and 2006, but never created the office. The county does have an ethics commission to review citizens complaints, but after 20 years, it’s never levied a fine of more than $100.

Snohomish County will model its ombudsman, in part, on the system that King County implemented more than 40 years ago as part of its 1968 County Home Rule Charter. Its mission is not only to investigate violations but also to publicize its recommendations.

King County’s ombudsman is charged with investigating citizen complaints about county government, allegations about employee misconduct and other reports of improper governmental action.

To work, the office needs to remain independent from the executive of the County Council. Koster may have to tell elected leaders things they don’t want to hear. It’s almost like a “fourth branch of government,” Ericks said.

“We’re inviting somebody into our house to tell us how we should do something better,” he said.

For now, the ombudsman will fall under the human resources department. Its director reports to Lovick.

The ombudsman office will be open by springtime, Ericks said.

It’s unclear how long Koster intends to stay in the role. He could not immediately be reached Thursday afternoon.

“What I have offered John is to get this started up for us,” Ericks said.

In a year or so, Ericks expects to talk to Koster about whether he’s interested in staying on.

Koster has served 12 years on the County Council. After three consecutive terms, he was ineligible to run again this year. Democratic Councilman Dave Gossett of Mountlake Terrace also must leave office at the end of the year for the same reason.

Koster previously served six years in the state House of Representatives.

His salary in the new job will be a little over $100,000 per year, Ericks said.

Koster’s legislative aide, Barbara Chapman, also will join the ombudsman’s office as an assistant. She’ll also work for the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity investigator, Stacey Allen, who is responsible for looking into internal employee complaints.

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

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