EVERETT — For three years, through the Black Lives Matter movement and national conversations about police violence, a seat on the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission reserved for a law enforcement officer remained vacant.
Tired of waiting, the commission went ahead and recruited a candidate of their own in April 2022, giving unanimous support to Susanna Johnson, a deputy police chief in Bothell.
Seven months later, as her application languished and the seat stayed open, Johnson registered a campaign challenging incumbent Sheriff Adam Fortney, who is in charge of filling the seat along with Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers.
Within weeks, the Snohomish County Council voted 4-1 to approve another candidate to the seat: Snohomish County sheriff’s Cpt. Robert Ogawa.
Tension over the vacancy percolated quietly outside the public eye. But the way the decision was made has led to finger-pointing and allegations of politicizing a panel whose vision is to promote “harmony through understanding, acceptance and support.”
‘Passed on for review’
The nine-person advisory panel hosts public forums and serves as a community sounding board on racism, sexism and discrimination.
Over the past three years, the shorthanded panel has still recommended legislative positions and held public events — such as a recent forum on domestic extremism.
With the seat vacant, the panel hit a roadblock while trying to gather information about an alleged hate crime in March 2022.
In April, then-vice chair of the commission Demi Chatters reached out to community leaders in search of candidates to fill the vacancy in 2022. Johnson applied on April 20. Her application was “passed on for review” the same day, according to email correspondence obtained by The Daily Herald.
For months, there were no updates from the sheriff’s office nor the county executive. The Human Rights Commission announced unanimous support for Johnson’s application on July 7, hoping to move the process along.
According to county code 2.03.030, candidate recommendations to all boards and commissions must come “within a reasonable time,” which is defined as “30 days unless extenuating circumstances described in writing by the executive and approved by the council, require additional time.”
The seat sat vacant for four more months.
On Oct. 31, Johnson officially registered her campaign for sheriff. She has since raised over $23,000, including $125 from Chatters and a largely progressive base.
Fortney has raised over $18,000, with $125 and $100 checks coming from County Council members Sam Low and Nate Nehring, two Republicans who criticized the Human Rights Commission for supporting Johnson.
‘Clear political patronage’
County code requires the law enforcement seat nomination “shall be made in consultation with the county sheriff.” It doesn’t prevent any person or organization — including the commission itself — from submitting suggestions, such as Johnson.
Ken Klein, an executive director in the county executive office, said the office followed code and reached out to Fortney to fill the vacancy.
“We brought it to his attention. He did not even realize he had a position on this commission,” Klein said in December.
Fortney and Somers settled on a new candidate, Ogawa, who has 17 years of police experience and currently serves as a corrections captain at the Snohomish County Jail. At the County Council hearing to confirm Ogawa on Dec. 14, a heated discussion ensued about who can weigh in on the appointment.
Council member Low apologized to Ogawa “for his nomination being marred by clear political patronage.”
“It’s clear that the person that was put forward (Johnson) is obviously in an election against the current sheriff,” Low said. “I think that reeks, and it smells really bad.”
Council member Nehring said it’s “not the first time the Human Rights Commission has done this kind of thing.”
“I view it as inappropriate for the Human Rights Commission to go outside of code on this process and make their own recommendation when there’s nothing in code that suggests that,” Nehring said. “I don’t think that should happen in the future.”
Members of the commission maintained that county code allows them, as an advisory body, to offer suggestions.
Council member Megan Dunn, who was chair at the time, provided the sole vote against Ogawa. Dunn said she was disappointed with the “lack of transparency and poor process around this appointment.”
“My vote reflected my support for the candidate that had the unanimous support of the commission,” said Dunn, a Democrat. “She has earned the right to be considered for a position on the Human Rights Commission, instead of being a target of divisive politics.”
Fortney and Ogawa declined to comment.
‘A bit of an attack’
Council member Strom Peterson — like Dunn, Mead, Low and Nehring — agreed Ogawa is qualified. Peterson also said, however, he wants the members of the commission to receive “the respect that they deserve” and to be able to offer input on candidates.
“I do have concerns with the process, and I think this gives us an opportunity to look a little more closely,” Peterson said.
In an interview this month, Chatters said she felt the current sheriff “just really didn’t want to hear what the community had to say,” and “it would be nice if our elected officials listened to the community.”
“As far as the allegations that (the Human Rights Commission) operated outside of code — outside of our powers and duties — to support Susanna Johnson, that was particularly concerning,” Chatters said. “That’s not a non-serious allegation to make. It was felt as a bit of an attack on the commission that was really not fair, not accurate and not based on facts.”
When Ogawa takes his seat on the Human Rights Commission in February, it’ll be the first time a law enforcement officer has had a voice on the panel during Fortney’s tenure as sheriff.
Johnson said she got the impression from the sheriff’s office that the seat “wasn’t a priority for whatever reason.”
“I thought it would be a great opportunity. Ultimately, I didn’t get to serve,” Johnson said. “My understanding is the person they selected is qualified, and I think that’s the most important thing.”