Thursday’s resignation of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon was a joyless capsule on tainted leadership. Cathartic it wasn’t, because catharsis requires accountability, authenticity, a willingness to make amends.
A career politician adroit at taking credit for the labor of others, Reardon stood defiant, unwilling to shoulder blame or responsibility —or even feign humility — for a crisis of his own creation.
As the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, said to the White House congressional liaison in 1980, “You guys came in like a bunch of jerks, and I see you’re going out the same way.”
At his State of the County address, Reardon announced that he would resign at the end of May because of “false and scurrilous accusations” emanating from “groups that oppose” him. Exceptional investigative reporting by The Herald’s Scott North and Noah Haglund revealed evidence of online harassment and surveillance of Reardon’s political enemies — a list that extends to those who cooperated in the Washington State Patrol’s investigation of Reardon’s use of public money.
What, precisely, is false? Reardon merits an opportunity to defend his character and leadership but, like a third-world autocrat, he prefers to isolate, refusing to answer questions. It’s an evocative silence.
The erosion of trust in the integrity and leadership of Reardon and his staff was magnified by Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe’s call last week for an independent investigation. It culminated on Wednesday when the County Council passed an emergency ordinance removing the Department of Information Services from Reardon’s authority, transferring control to County Auditor Carolyn Weikel.
Many questions still need to be answered, and an investigation is likely. But now there is hope, hope for inspired leadership. The mission must be to restore the people’s faith and tap someone with integrity, humility and, yes, wisdom. Citizens and the County Council might consider the mantra of the father of the nuclear Navy, Adm. H.G. Rickover, who always asked, “Why not the best?”
Public service is the highest calling, thankless, noble, and all-consuming. The Reardon era and its attendant cynicism must never diminish that. On Wednesday, before Reardon announced his May resignation, County Councilman Brian Sullivan summarized the feelings of many. “There are thousands of hard working, dedicated county employees who come to work every day and do their best to build and repair roads, protect our citizens, maintain a world-class parks system, and provide a hundred other services to county residents…We all deserve better.” Thankfully, at last, we’re one step closer.