County Ombudsman Koster under fire for anti-union statements

EVERETT — When he was appointed Snohomish County’s first ombudsman, John Koster was told to check his politics at the door.

The job places a premium on impartiality.

For Koster, that meant setting aside conservative views he’s made known during three successful runs for the County Council and three unsuccessful runs for Congress.

The very person who appointed Koster a year ago now questions whether he’s fit to continue in the job, following anti-union statements by the ombudsman.

Koster’s verbal attack on organized labor came in an Oct. 11 fundraising letter for the Freedom Foundation, a right-leaning Olympia think tank. His remarks have surfaced as the County Council prepares to consider reappointing Koster for another two years.

“For too long, labor leaders have ripped off our hard-working teachers and state employees, forcing them to pay dues whether they want to be part of the union or not, then funneling that money to politicians at election time,” part of the letter reads.

Elsewhere, it refers to Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe as a “brother-in-arms of mine in the fight against union control of Washington for more then 20 years.”

It asks “committed patriots across Washington to support them in taking on the union machine.”

Koster said McCabe wrote most of the letter, and he agreed to sign on. He said he worked on it at home, on his own time.

“I didn’t see this as any big deal,” he said. “This wasn’t from the ombudsman, this was from John Koster — from me personally.”

Nowhere does the letter mention the ombudsman’s post or political parties. It’s not printed on county stationary, though a header proclaims that the message comes “from the desk of John Koster.”

Koster said he’s been careful to refrain from endorsing candidates during the recent election season, despite pressure to do so. He said it’s unfair to expect him to give up his right to speak his mind.

Many union members don’t see it that way. About 80 percent of the county’s nearly 2,800-strong workforce is represented by organized labor. Some of them were upset to receive Koster’s fundraising letter this fall and brought copies to the county executive’s office.

“He clearly stepped out of bounds and he should not continue in this position,” said Chris Dugovich, president of the AFSCME affiliate that represents most county employees.

Dugovich said he assumed that county leaders would come to the same conclusion.

That remains to be seen.

Koster’s reappointment is expected to come up at the County Council’s 10:30 a.m. meeting Dec. 15.

Council Chairman Dave Somers said there’s no policy violation on Koster’s part, though there might be questions of judgment.

“As long as he’s county ombudsman, I think he should refrain from taking strong political positions that could affect his job performance,” Somers said.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said he was torn between his respect for Koster and the union-represented county workforce.

“Since it is becoming a public debate, it needs to be vetted publicly,” Sullivan said. “I would rather it not have happened.”

While the decision is the council’s to make, Executive John Lovick is asking them to take “the necessary steps to insure that (Koster) is not reappointed when his term expires Dec. 31, 2014.”

“How could any of our represented employees, or the thousands of our hard-working union members from our county, expect to treated in a fair and impartial manner by an ombudsman who has published a letter that is so critical of their union leadership,” Lovick wrote Friday to the County Council.

Koster said he’s always supported county workers, while on the council and in his current role.

“You won’t find one employee there who will tell you I’ve treated them unfairly in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Not one.”

Lovick created the ombudsman’s job as part of the 2014 budget to promote government transparency and accountability.

Koster at the time was preparing to leave elected office as a Republican county councilman because of a limit on the number of terms one can serve.

As a staunch Democrat, Lovick’s choice of Koster seemed like an inspired bipartisan gesture. He was willing to look past the GOP stalwart’s unrelenting conservatism to recognize his grounding in county government and reputation for high ethical standards.

This fall, the County Council adopted new rules to give the council a greater role in deciding who will be ombudsman. The office is supposed to operate independently of other branches of government.

The ombudsman has the authority to investigate public complaints about county government and to recommend efficiency improvements. A separate office handles workplace complaints involving county workers, which involves direct contact with union issues.

Koster spent much of this year drafting procedures for the ombudsman’s office. Before those rules were in place, he began receiving pleas for help. Early on, most of the requests involved land-use and planning issues. He’s worked at sorting through property-tax questions and water-runoff problems, as well. He also spent part of the year helping people hit by the Oso mudslide.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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