‘Freedom County’ backing enters council race

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

"Freedom County" has found its way into an increasingly bitter Snohomish County political race.

Democratic county council candidate Mike Ashley recently sent voters a letter accusing his Republican opponent, John Koster, of supporting efforts to turn northern Snohomish County into a separate Freedom County.

Ashley, the incumbent and a vocal critic of the secessionist movement, said he wanted to show people that Koster supported the issue during his tenure in the state Legislature.

"I just saw it as an example of his irresponsibility in the time he was in Olympia," Ashley said.

But Koster condemned the letter as a distortion of his record and an effort to distract voters from real issues, including taxes and traffic, in the waning days of the campaign.

Koster, a former three-term lawmaker, said he was particularly angry that the mailing sought to connect him to a recent Herald editorial about Freedom County that doesn’t mention him or the election, and to the terrorist attacks on the East Coast.

"To draw the line between the editorial on Freedom County and the terrorists and draw it to me, that’s way out of line," he said.

The disputed letter claims that Koster was a lead proponent of legislation that would have split Snohomish County. It seeks to tie him directly to that movement, referring to "John Koster’s Freedom County," and featuring excerpts from a recent Herald editorial criticizing secession supporters.

It also alludes to fears about terrorism. The pamphlet warns that the secessionist movement will "divide us at a time when coming together is more important than ever."

Ashley said the claims about Freedom County are backed by Koster’s voting record, which shows he sponsored three 1997 bills creating new counties, including Freedom County, without a public vote.

Freedom County would have included much of what is now the 1st Council District, the seat the two candidates are seeking.

Ashley defended the allusion to the Sept. 11 attacks. It stemmed from his encounter with Freedom County sympathizers who came to his doorstep the night of the attacks, claiming they were serving legal papers on him, he said.

"We only addressed it because it was something that happened to me personally and something that happened to my family," said Ashley, who that night picked up a shotgun and ordered the men to leave his farm.

Koster, however, said he’s not a Freedom County supporter. He pointed to a series of court decisions rejecting claims that the county exists.

"Freedom County isn’t an issue. It doesn’t even exist," he said. "I think they (Ashley’s campaign) view it as a divisive issue and something they can use."

He also stood by his legislative record. In 1997, Koster introduced three bills that would have created three new counties. Two of those, Freedom and Skykomish counties, would have included chunks of what is now Snohomish County. The third, Pioneer County, covered part of Whatcom County.

The initial versions of those bills would have created the counties without a vote by local residents. Soon after their introduction, they were changed to substitute bills requiring an election, a change Koster said he supported. Those bills died in the Legislature, as did similar ones in 1998.

Koster said he had a constitutional obligation to help constituents who brought signed petitions to the Legislature seeking to create the counties. Those petitions deserved a hearing, and the legislation would have cleared up confusion about how to create a new county, he said.

"It would have afforded the dialogue of whether they needed to go forward with Freedom County," he said.

State Sen. Val Stevens, an Arlington Republican also involved in the legislation, said she felt a similar constitutional obligation to respond to petitions to create the counties.

"We saw it as a matter of duty and responsibility," she said.

But Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat who opposed the legislation, said Koster’s work encouraged the secessionists. Lawmakers aren’t obligated to sponsor a bill just because people draft a petition for it, she said.

"I know that Koster’s trying to distance himself. But believe me, he was out in front for them," she said.

Since that legislative debate, the new-county movement has largely withered.

But a core of Freedom County supporters remains active, claiming that the new county already exists and that they have their own county commission and sheriff. They have also filed a number of lawsuits and liens against governments and government officials, including Koster and Stevens. The courts have rejected the lawsuits.

The tactics have soured some people who were once willing to consider the petitions.

"They’re crackpots," said Stevens. "In my mind, they have zero credibility."

Koster pointed to the presence of a Freedom County supporter in the county council race as additional evidence that he’s not affiliated with the movement.

"Am I their candidate? No, I’m not their candidate," Koster said.

Frank Ball, the Libertarian candidate in the race, is a Freedom County supporter, said his campaign manager, Thom Satterlee.

Satterlee is the most prominent spokesman for the Freedom County movement and claims to be a commissioner of the county.

Satterlee dismissed Ashley’s claims of a tie to Koster.

"Mr. Ashley’s efforts to demonize John Koster with being some kind of supporter is on its face ridiculous," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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