“I’m glad it’s behind me. I never wanted to be the guy to sue the county,” John Koster told The Herald last week following announcement of a settlement between him and Snohomish County to end a federal lawsuit that stemmed from his dismissal as county ombudsman in December of 2014.
“It was one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life. I love the county and enjoyed the job,” he continued.
His share of the $585,000 settlement — $235,000 to Koster; $350,000 to his lawyers — will have to be enough to put the unpleasantness behind him. He had originally sought $950,000 in the lawsuit brought after the Snohomish County Council voted against reappointing him to the position he helped launch.
His initial appointment was meant as a bipartisan gesture and acknowledged his 12 years of service on the council and his constituent work throughout his council district, but it ended in partisan rancor.
Koster, following three terms on the council and unable to run again because of term limits, was appointed to the position in late 2013 by then-County Executive John Lovick. But Lovick, a Democrat, lost confidence in Koster after Koster, a Republican, signed on to a fundraising letter for the right-leaning Freedom Foundation that was critical of unions, accusing them of “ripping off our hard-working teachers and state employees.”
County union members, who had received the fundraising letter, complained to Lovick. Lovick, now doubting Koster’s ability to work with any county union employees who might need his assistance, asked the council not to reappoint Koster when his term expired at the end of 2014.
Unable to garner enough support on the council Koster was not reappointed.
Koster is correct that the settlement puts the matter behind him. It’s the same justification used by the county in agreeing to the settlement. Council Chairman Brian Sullivan told The Herald the county agreed to the payout to avoid spending an even larger sum on a long and costly lawsuit. The county admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.
But, despite the contention from the Freedom Foundation’s Jeff Rhodes in a commentary in Sunday’s Herald that Koster was fired for making a political statement and the settlement represented “a tax on political correctness,” no such conclusion can be made as to the merits of Koster’s claims or the county’s defense.
Koster defended his work as ombudsman and noted that he successfully responded and resolved 133 complaints during his year at the post and that his participation in the fundraising letter was on his own time. All true.
But it’s equally true that Koster, in taking the ombudsman position, acknowledged that he would have to put a damper on his partisan statements in order to maintain the impartiality that the job required. Koster admitted as much when he initially apologized to the council for his participation in the letter and said he regretted putting the council in an uncomfortable situation.
The settlement leaves those arguments unresolved. In the end, this is a draw, but one with a $585,000 cost to the county.