Ethical missteps (insert appropriate cuss word here) by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and company continue to demoralize county staff and diminish the region’s political standing. Never again, we say, praying that human nature evolves and the unsullied and un-Reardon-like gravitate to government service. As George Weigel writes, “Democracy is more than the institutions of democracy; it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democracy work.”
To attract the best and brightest to public service, checks and accountability are required. If Snohomish County had an internal enforcement agency with teeth, the spectacle of a tainted county executive treading water while drawing a six-figure salary might be avoided.
When a citizen or county employee currently has an ethics concern, she or he can file a complaint with the Snohomish County Ethics Commission. The commission was established by county ordinance more than 20 years ago to receive complaints and to administer the Code of Ethics in Chapter 2.50 of the Snohomish County Code. The commission’s challenges are systemic — a narrow authority with a reactive, bring-us-the-violations m.o. It is comprised of five volunteer commissioners appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council.
Under Reardon, one position sits vacant and one appointee rarely shows. Over the past two decades, the maximum penalty ever levied was $100. The average fine is — no joke — $10, fifty cents shy of a ticket to see “Oz the Great and Powerful” at the Everett Mall. The commission has neither the means nor the authority to tackle ethics violations in a credible manner.
In 1986, 1996, and 2006, the County Charter Review Commission weighed the idea of an independent Ombudsman, but the brainstorm never went to the ballot. A 2006 report to the review commission notes, “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: Politicians insist they are better equipped to deal with ethics complaints and if you have a gripe, you’re going to have a tough time figuring out what to do and where to go.
There is a solution. Snohomish County should disband its ethics commission and establish a county Ombudsman to quickly and effectively investigate citizen complaints. King County offers 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 findings and recommendations. The Ombudsman would have the power to subpoena witnesses as well as to administer oaths.
The position would take a bite from the budget. The best place to look for cost savings is a top-heavy executive’s office.
A county Ombudsman can’t prevent a future Reardon. But it can restore people’s faith in the dignity, ethics and service of those in public life.