By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — When Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has appeared in the news lately, it’s often been for his legal troubles or for sparring with other elected officials.
On Wednesday, Reardon focused instead on a familiar topic from days past: the importance of helping the county compete for high-paying jobs, particularly in aerospace. The executive delivered his message during an annual speech to the Economic Alliance Snohomish County, the area’s largest business group.
“We are ground zero for the most raw, competitive element of capitalism that has ever existed,” Reardon said over breakfast at the Everett Golf and Country Club.
“From the factory floor to the boardroom … it is raw capitalism, it is live or die,” he added.
Reardon said a competitive mindset and support for higher education would help the county attract more airplane builders and other technology-driven industries.
“We are almost there, and the ‘there’ is a transformational economy that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state,” Reardon said.
Left unaddressed amid all of the aerospace enthusiasm was a jetliner-size gorilla in the room: the executive’s past and ongoing legal problems.
A prosecutor in June decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Reardon with official misconduct involving travel spending. That conclusion came after the Washington State Patrol spent nearly eight months looking into whether Reardon, who is married, spent taxpayer money during out-of-town county business trips on a woman who said she was his longtime mistress. The tightly focused investigation ultimately zeroed in on a single trip to Chicago in 2010, and $6 in questioned charges for a cab fare.
Reardon kept a low profile during the criminal investigation.
He’s taking a similar tact now that the state Public Disclosure Commission has opened an investigation into evidence Reardon campaigned using his county-issued cellphone and other public resources, while official calendars suggested he was engaged in county business. The PDC has the authority to levy civil fines.
After the speech, Reardon brushed off a reporter’s question about the PDC investigation.
Among the crowd, reaction to Reardon’s speech was polite.
State Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, simply said, “I thought it was good.”
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, who has been working to attract industry to land along I-5, said it was hard to disagree with Reardon’s general themes.
“The thing we agree on is economic development and jobs,” he said.
County Councilman Dave Gossett said he thought something was missing.
“The single most important thing local governments can do to set the stage for the private sector to create jobs is transportation, and that’s an area where we’ve seen no leadership,” he said.
In the past, Gossett has criticized Reardon and his administration for failing to develop long-term plans for fixing the county’s most congested roads, especially paying for improvements.
Typically, the Economic Alliance or other business groups have hosted the executive to deliver a “state of the county” speech early in the year. The Economic Alliance said scheduling conflicts pushed back Reardon’s speech to mid-summer.
For at least the past two years, Reardon’s address has stirred up controversy.
In 2011, he trumpeted a water-bottling venture that was supposed to start building a 100,000-square-foot plant on Port of Everett property by mid-2011. In the months following Reardon’s announcement, no plans materialized for the plant and his economic development director, who was coordinating the project for his office, left her job to go into business with one of the water plant’s main backers — an energy drink entrepreneur whose Sea2O Reardon once pitched in an online video.
Port officials have heard nothing from the bottling company in more than a year.
Reardon in his 2010 speech said he wanted to mend fences with other county leaders but further strained relations by blaming them for conflict.
After Wednesday’s speech, Reardon insisted his approach in this year’s speech was no different from those past. He said he was telling a positive story of where the county stands economically and where it’s headed.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.