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; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A portion of the site of the proposed Lake Stevens Costco at the intersection of Highway 9 (right) and South Lake Stevens Road (below, out of view). (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Shovel alert: Groundbreaking on Lake Stevens Costco is near

A land sale in early June cleared the way. The mayor says dirt could be flying as soon as next week.

Taleah Burr (left right), Laurel Harrison, Caitlin Hitchner and Kelsey Jinneman-Fairbanks are four teachers at Challenger Elementary in Everett got Roman numeral '4' tattoos to represent their "Core 4" solidarity the day after their first year teaching in 2014.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Inked: Third-grade teachers tattoo their solidarity IV-ever

Most of their Challenger Elementary students don’t know about the hidden badge of teacher pride.

In Edmonds, ‘small cell’ deployment permit becomes a big deal

The City Council has allowed new cellular equipment under an ordinance that regulates conditions.

Woman killed in hit-and-run south of Everett is identified

Detectives have been searching for the vehicle that struck Katherine Mueller, 31, of Snohomish.

Highway 99 fatal crash victim from Seattle identified

Sarah Cooper was the passenger in the car that reportedly crossed into oncoming traffic in Lynnwood.

The passenger loading ramp is nearing completion at the new Mukilteo ferry terminal. (Andrea Brown / The Herald) Feb. 4, 2021
State ferry fares set to rise for drivers and walk-ons

A state panel proposed a 2.5% hike in each of the next two years to cover the system’s operating costs.

Officers surrounded a Motel 6 near Everett Tuesday morning after a reported rape. A man tried to flee but was subdued and arrested. (Ellen Dennis / The Herald) 20210615
Man arrested after standoff at motel over reported rape

Surrounded by a SWAT team near Everett, the man tried to flee but was subdued with pepper balls.

Arlington-area man arrested in fatal machete attack on uncle

The nephew, 31, claimed self-defense. It was an argument over a wheelbarrow, a sheriff’s deputy wrote.

Jeff Thoreson does a cheer with his second grade class before the start of their kickball game on his last in-person day of school on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Snohomish, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Snohomish teacher hit the right notes in memorable career

Jeff Thoreson will retire this month after molding minds at Riverview Elementary School for 41 years.

Most Read