Koster apologizes; County Council to decide ombudsman’s fate

EVERETT — John Koster has apologized to the Snohomish County Council for making anti-union statements, as he tries to keep his job as the county’s first ombudsman.

The former three-term Republican county councilman upset some union members by signing an Oct. 11 fundraising letter for the Freedom Foundation, a conservative Olympia think tank.

Koster’s former council colleagues get to decide Monday whether to support reappointing to another two years. A vote is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. in council chambers.

“I acknowledge and deeply regret that this may have put the council in an uncomfortable position and can assure you that it won’t happen again,” Koster wrote to the council last week.

Koster earlier said he worked on the fundraising letter away from work. Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe wrote most of it, and Koster signed on.

The letter asks “committed patriots across Washington to support them in taking on the union machine.” It accuses labor leaders of ripping off teachers and state employees.

The ombudsman told council members the fundraising statements are “in no way a reflection of my ability to conduct county business ethically, fairly, and impartially as I have always done.”

Executive John Lovick, a Democrat, doesn’t agree. Lovick hired Koster a year ago for the newly created ombudsman job. The executive now believes Koster crossed a line. He is asking council members not to reappoint him.

During the past year, the council changed the rules governing the ombudsman so that council members, and not the executive, mostly control who occupies the job. The ombudsman is supposed to exist separately of other branches of government.

Four of the five council members are Democrats, but at least one of them says he accepts Koster’s apology and wants to keep him on.

“I severely disagree with his politics, but to me he’s shown he can do his job without them affecting it,” council Chairman Dave Somers said.

The ombudsman has the authority to investigate 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. About 80 percent of the county’s approximately 2,800-person workforce are union-represented.

In 2014, Koster handled 133 complaints as ombudsman. The largest bloc — 52 — focused on issues within the planning department. The Sheriff’s Office, jail and Public Works Departments together contributed another 29 complaints. In most cases, the office attempted to provide some help navigating county bureaucracy. In others, people received information or referrals.

Koster spent much this year drafting procedures for how the ombudsman’s office should function. After the Oso mudslide hit, he helped survivors navigate assistance programs.

If not renewed, his appointment was set to expire at the end of this year.

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

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