For $585,000, county settles John Koster’s free-speech suit

John Koster when he was a Snohomish County Council member in 2013. He later worked as county ombudsman, but was fired after he signed onto a fundraising letter for an Olympia think tank that criticized government union leaders for supporting left-wing causes. (Herald file photo)

John Koster when he was a Snohomish County Council member in 2013. He later worked as county ombudsman, but was fired after he signed onto a fundraising letter for an Olympia think tank that criticized government union leaders for supporting left-wing causes. (Herald file photo)

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council on Monday authorized settling a federal free-speech lawsuit brought by John Koster over his abrupt, public ouster as the county ombudsman 2½ years ago.

The settlement agreement for $585,000 was approved unanimously after an executive session.

Koster’s firing in late 2014 came after he signed onto a fundraising letter for an Olympia think tank that criticized government union leaders for supporting left-wing causes. Some county Democratic elected officials and union members said the letter compromised Koster’s neutrality as ombudsman.

Koster, for his part, said he was exercising free speech separate from his job. He said that’s why he felt strongly about pursuing legal action, to stand up for “basic civil rights guaranteed in our Constitution.”

“I’m glad it’s behind me. I never wanted to be the guy to sue the county,” Koster said Monday. “It was one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life. I love the county and enjoyed the job.”

Koster filed his lawsuit in U.S. District Court in April 2016.

No court ever got to sort out the competing claims. In the settlement, the county admitted no wrongdoing. An agreement specifies that $105,000 of the settlement will compensate Koster for back wages; $130,000 for general damages; and $350,000 for attorneys’ fees.

Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said it was best to avoid an expensive trial, which could have run up millions of dollars in legal costs.

“This settlement is more about risk management,” Sullivan said. “If we went to trial, there would be no winners.”

After two decades in public office, Koster, 65, is one of most recognizable faces in Snohomish County politics.

His stint as ombudsman came after he served a dozen years on the County Council. A former dairy farmer from Arlington, he also served as a state lawmaker for six years, starting in the mid-1990s. He ran three unsuccessful campaigns for a U.S. House seat.

After 2013, term limits prevented Koster from continuing in his council job. In a moment of bipartisan goodwill, former County Executive John Lovick, a liberal Democrat, hired the conservative Republican to be the county’s first-ever ombudsman. The newly created job was designed to assist people when they encountered problems with county government. Common complaints involve land use, human service benefits, interactions with law enforcement or public works. The job has no role in union issues or employee grievances.

For much of 2014, Koster drafted rules for the new office and helped people seek assistance after the Oso mudslide. He never received any complaints about his job performance, according to court depositions. County managers said they enjoyed working with him.

That fall, however, Koster agreed to let his name and the words “from the desk of John Koster” appear on a fundraising letter for the nonprofit Freedom Foundation. The letter accused labor leaders of ripping off teachers and state employees.

“There is no path to a free-market majority in Washington state that does not involve the defeat of our state’s left-wing union bosses,” one passage read.

Some union members received copies of the letter after it was mailed in October 2014 to people who had donated to Koster’s past campaigns.

Koster offered a public apology, but Lovick deemed the letter “inflammatory” and asked the council not to reappoint him.

Two county councilmen —Dave Somers and the council’s then-lone Republican, Ken Klein— supported Koster, but he needed three votes. Brian Sullivan voted against him. Terry Ryan abstained and Stephanie Wright was absent from the meeting.

By the end of the year, the office was vacant.

Koster’s suit named Lovick, Ryan, Sullivan and Wright as defendants, in addition to the county government. He was represented by Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Wright, in a deposition, said she did not attend the reappointment meeting because she had a pre-scheduled dentist visit. She said she would have voted against reappointment because of concerns about Koster’s neutrality.

Ryan, in a deposition, said he felt that the decision to sign the Freedom Foundation letter “was terrible judgment” and that he told Koster before the vote that he would not support him.

Koster returned this year to the state House, after winning election to represent the 39th Legislative District. Also back as an elected representative in Olympia is Lovick, who was appointed, then elected to a state House seat last year after losing the executive’s job to Somers in 2015.

Serving as ombudsman for the past two years has been Jill McKinnie, a former staffer for Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen. The job could soon be rebranded the Office of the Public Advocate. The County Council has scheduled a hearing at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to consider that and other changes in line with a charter amendment that voters passed last year.

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

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