A gross abuse of power

The best and the worst gravitate to politics because politics entails power. Power can be harnessed for the greater good, just as it can be manipulated out of revenge or self-interest.

The Herald’s Scott North and Noah Haglund’s months-long investigation, published Thursday, pulls back the curtain on a meshwork of online attacks and costly records requests emanating from the office of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. Unsnaggling the web requires a detective’s eye, hours of picayune legwork, and a copy of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” but it can be reduced to its essence, a gross abuse of the public trust. The arrogance of power, and a vindictive office culture that feeds on the juvenile, has devastating consequences.

Reardon’s silence and the stonewalling of his spokesman, Christopher Schwarzen, telegraph what is in plain sight. “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Chico Marx said in “Duck Soup.”

When the quiet was pierced with a terse, early evening press statement on Thursday, Reardon’s stunning disconnect from reality, his unwillingness to accept responsibility for those acting on his behalf, couldn’t pass the laugh test.

The Snohomish County Council is weighing an investigative hearing and taxpayers will again shoulder the cost. There is value to a proactive strategy. As Dumas writes in the Reardon administration’s favorite novel, “remember that what has once been done may be done again.”

Human nature is immutable. Long after the Reardon era has become a frayed synapse, the question of the Public Records Act and how to rein in the lesser angels will remain.

In the Kevin Hulten case, the spirit if not the letter of Washington’s public records law was violated to harass and engage in surveillance against others in government. The major reason the ruse has been possible, aside from the obvious management issues, is that state public records law doesn’t require proof that a real person with a real name is seeking the records. In the age of cyber legerdemain, that loophole must be mended.

The latest push to amend the law has been to curtail the burden and cost responding to records requests. Addressing the anonymity problem, call it the Hulten Amendment, needs to be priority one, however. The Reardon administration is a case study: Here is evidence that a government employee is gaming the system and running up costs, and nothing is being done about it.

Snohomish County taxpayers don’t need to wait for lawmakers in Olympia. The county council can enact policy that says engaging in this sort of activity, particularly during work hours, is grounds for termination. (If only it could be retroactive.)

In the Lenten season, the Reardon administration might embrace humility. In the meantime, Kevin Hulten and any other staff members and elected officials aware or linked to his activities, must resign.

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