Official’s political work displays lack of discretion

There’s no special knack in having an opinion; the trick is in knowing when, where and how to voice — or not voice — those thoughts.

Snohomish County Ombudsman John Koster is hearing criticism from some county employees and County Executive John Lovick, who hired him to launch the position a year ago, because of a fundraising letter he signed in support of the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, as Herald Writer Noah Haglund reported in Monday’s Herald.

The letter, written by the foundation’s CEO, calls for “committed patriots” to support the foundation “in taking on the union machine.”

“For too long,” the letter continues, “labor leaders have ripped off our hard-working teachers and state employees, forcing them to pay dues whether they want to be part of the union or not, then funneling that money to politicians at election time.”

Agree or disagree with the statement, but it’s an inflammatory stance to take for an ombudsman who was hired to model impartiality in investigating citizen complaints about county government, employee misconduct and other county actions.

There are no allegations that Koster used his office in backing the fundraising letter. It’s written on his own letterhead and makes no reference to his position as ombudsman for the county. And, Koster says, he sees no problem with signing the letter because taking on the position of ombudsman didn’t mean he had to give up his right to voice his opinion.

Except, it did mean he does have to show discretion in the opinions he holds publicly.

The county’s job description for the position reads: “The ombudsman shall be a person of recognized judgment, objectivity and integrity, who is well-equipped to analyze problems of law, administration and public policy.”

Koster, a few months after starting the job, acknowledged as much.

“We can’t be partisan, so I can’t be involved in any of the political races this year,” he told The Herald at the time. “We have to be very non-partisan and neutral.”

To our knowledge, Koster didn’t publicly announce his opinions regarding candidates or issues this election season.

It will be up to the county council to decide if what Koster said about unions qualifies as a partisan statement or one that failed to display objectivity. He has lost the confidence of Lovick, the Democrat who made a point of hiring a Republican for the position.

Such a strongly worded indictment against unions could make it difficult for Koster to continue his work as an ombudsman, raising questions about his ability to be an impartial judge if he has to investigate a complaint, for example, about a county employee who belongs to a union. And about 80 percent of the 2,800 county employees are represented by unions.

Koster has every right to voice his opinion. And the county council has every right to decide if his apparent inability to show discretion means he’s not the right fit for the job.

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