Koster loses job as county’s first ombudsman

EVERETT — A bipartisan experiment that seemed to promise great things a year ago ended in a public meeting Monday, when John Koster lost his job as Snohomish County’s first ombudsman.

The decision on reappointing Koster rested with the County Council. Executive John Lovick, a Democrat, had urged them to say no because of Koster’s choice to lend his name to an anti-union fundraising letter.

Koster, a former three-term Republican councilman, sat across from his former colleagues Monday pleading to keep his job.

“I would like to think that my reappointment will be considered in light of the work that we have done,” he said.

Political affiliation and union membership, Koster said, never entered into his thought process when helping people: “We’ve always jumped in and done our very best for them.”

In the end, Lovick’s argument won out.

Supporting Koster were Council Chairman Dave Somers, a Democrat, and Ken Klein, the council’s lone Republican, who holds Koster’s former seat.

Under county code, a motion requires three votes to pass. The reappointment only mustered those two supporters.

Councilman Brian Sullivan voted against the appointment. Councilman Terry Ryan voted to abstain. Councilwoman Stephanie Wright was absent.

Koster’s appointment is set to expire Dec. 31. It’s up to Lovick to forward nominees to the council to fill the post for the next two years.

The ombudsman’s job is to investigate complaints about county government and to recommend efficiency improvements. It has no involvement with personnel complaints, which are handled by a separate office.

Pay for the ombudsman’s job ranges from $91,000 to $128,000. Koster’s annual pay was set at $105,000.

Koster spent much of this year drafting rules for how the office should function. After the Oso mudslide hit March 22, he helped people affected by the disaster seek out assistance.

“I think we did lay the groundwork for the future,” Koster said, before leaving the meeting.

Koster’s troubles stemmed from an Oct. 11 fundraising letter for the Freedom Foundation. While technically nonpartisan, the Olympia think tank supports a conservative agenda, including limiting the influence of public sector unions.

Koster said that the foundation’s CEO, Tom McCabe, wrote most of the letter, which asks “committed patriots across Washington to support them in taking on the union machine.”

Koster said he worked on the fundraising appeal at home. While labeled “from the desk of John Koster,” it’s not on county letterhead and makes no mention of the ombudsman’s office.

Lovick, who hired Koster a year ago, said the statements crossed a line.

The executive’s office learned about the fundraising letter after some county employees received copies in the mail. About 80 percent of the county’s approximately 2,800-person workforce are union-represented.

Last week, Koster wrote a formal apology to the council.

After the vote, Ryan said that abstaining was the right decision, although he offered no information about any potential conflict or other reason to disqualify himself. Not voting had the same effect as opposing Koster’s reappointment, he said.

“That office, more than any other, needs to have neutrality to it,” Ryan said. “There would be at least a perceived cloud over the office if we didn’t make a change.”

Klein, on the other hand, said he was “deeply concerned about the email that we received from the executive” asking council members not to support Koster’s reappointment. To him, the move smacked of retaliation against Koster as part of a larger dispute between Lovick’s administration and a majority of the County Council.

Sullivan said he holds Koster in high regard, despite voting against his reappointment. Like many others, he was quick to note the outgoing ombudsman’s reputation for high ethical standards and his devotion to the community.

“I think very highly of John Koster,” he said. “I think he’s been a great colleague, a worthy opponent and a good friend.”

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

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