Former county ombudsman John Koster files $950K claim

EVERETT — John Koster is seeking nearly a million dollars in damages from Snohomish County over his abrupt ouster last year as ombudsman.

Koster is accusing Executive John Lovick and his administration of violating his free speech rights by urging County Council members not to support his reappointment. Lovick had taken issue with a fundraising letter critical of union leaders that Koster signed in his personal capacity for the Freedom Foundation, a conservative Olympia think tank.

Koster lost his job at the end of December following a council vote.

“I didn’t take filing a claim against the county lightly,” Koster said last week. “I thought about it long and hard and it’s not right (what happened to me). Someone told me once you don’t have rights if you’re not willing to stand up for those rights.”

Koster’s damage claim cites an email Lovick sent Dec. 4 instructing then-Deputy Executive Mark Ericks to “take the necessary steps to insure that (Koster) is not reappointed to this position when his term expires on December 31, 2014.” Ericks forwarded the message to the County Council.

A damage claim is often a precursor to a lawsuit. In the paperwork the county received Aug. 27, Koster asks for $950,000 in lost wages and benefits. He said he’s endured humiliation, damage to his reputation, mental anguish and distress. He cites the U.S. and Washington constitutions, as well as workplace protections against wrongful termination for exercising personal political activity and free speech.

He’s being represented by Harry Korrell of the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

County attorneys have received Koster’s complaint, plan to review it with named elected officials and will proceed accordingly, said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.

Lovick, a Democrat, appointed Koster to serve in the newly created post of county ombudsman starting in January 2014. Koster at the time was leaving his job as a county councilman because of term limits. A conservative Republican, he had built a reputation for his familiarity with county and state government, as well as deep personal ties to the community.

In the ombudsman’s role, Koster fielded 133 complaints from people who encountered problems with county government. Often, they had questions about land use and law enforcement. When applicable, he recommended ways the county could improve services.

Koster spent much of the inaugural year drafting rules for the new office. After the Oso mudslide, he temporarily shifted his duties to help survivors navigate assistance programs.

No one has raised concerns about how Koster handled the complaints.

The conflict that cost Koster his job centers around a Freedom Foundation fundraising letter that he signed in October 2014. The letter, which Koster said was mostly written by Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe, asked “committed patriots across Washington to support them in taking on the union machine.” Part of the letter focused on getting a right-to-work initiative on the ballot in Clallam County.

“I didn’t see a problem there, I still don’t,” Koster said last week. “It didn’t have anything to do with my job.”

Koster said he refrained from political endorsements during his tenure as ombudsman, but “felt this was different, writing a letter on my own time, using no government resources.”

Koster has said he’s always supported union workers, but was critical of the political agendas pursued by labor leaders.

Some unionized Snohomish County government employees, however, complained to Lovick’s office after receiving copies of the letter.

When the County Council voted Dec. 22 on Koster’s reappointment, he was unable to secure the three votes necessary to retain his job.

Dave Somers, a Democrat, and Ken Klein, the council’s only Republican, voted to keep Koster. Brian Sullivan voted against. Terry Ryan abstained and Stephanie Wright was absent.

The council selected Jill McKinnie, a staffer from Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen’s Everett office, to take over the ombudsman’s job earlier this year.

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

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