For a people’s ombudsman

A culture of accountability requires ethical leadership and an institutional check of the humans-are-no-angels variety. After his first 100 days in office, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick seems to have the leadership part down. Now comes the institutional check.

When Lovick unveils his county budget at the end of September, it will include $100,000 for a county ombudsman. It’s a promising first step to advance government accountability.

During the Aaron Reardon imbroglio early in 2013, The Herald Editorial Board recommended that Snohomish County disband its toothless ethics commission and establish a county ombudsman to quickly and effectively investigate citizen complaints. The idea has been championed by Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks, a former state legislator and U.S. marshal for Western Washington.

King County provides a compelling model: an ombudsman’s office voters created through the County Home Rule Charter of 1968. The mission is not only to investigate violations but also to publicize its recommendations.

An ombudsman who investigates everything from jail services to ethics violations could be a budget drain. The proposal pencils by leaving vacant at least two non-essential positions in the executive’s office.

The brainstorm has earned support from a majority of the county council.

“I am pleased that we were able to prioritize the ombudsman position in the 2014 budget,” said Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright. “I think that it shows our commitment to being responsive to the needs and concerns of our citizens.”

Critical details need to be resolved, including oversight. Ideally, an ombudsman would fall under the rubric of an apolitical entity like the superior court. The first appointee also will telegraph the initiative’s seriousness. She or he must be above reproach.

In 1986, 1996, and 2006, the County Charter Review Commission weighed the idea of an independent ombudsman, but the proposal never went to the ballot. A 2006 report to the review commission reads, “Currently there is no formal ombudsman position or process in the county. The county elected officials claim that they serve in that role. A perusal of the County website shows no obvious access to a complaint mechanism.” Translation: If you have a concern, you’re going to have a tough time figuring out what to do and where to go.

The closest the county comes to an ombudsman is an impotent ethics commission, which after 20 years has never levied a fine over $100.

James Madison wrote that, “Experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” An office of county ombudsman is a necessity borne of experience.

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