By Jeff Rhodes
Call it a “political correctness tax.”
Snohomish County last week agreed to pay a settlement of nearly $600,000 for trying to deny former county Ombudsman John Koster the right to hold political views at odds with the Snohomish County Council and then-Snohomish County Executive John Lovick (“For $585,000, county settles John Koster’s free-speech suit,” The Herald, May 16).
Koster, a Republican, was appointed to a newly created position in 2014 when term limits prevented his running again for the county council. As ombudsman, Koster’s job was to interact with residents who had complaints about the county, mostly involving land-use rulings.
Starting in January of that year, he handled 133 complaints and in not one case did anyone criticize his job performance or accuse him of showing political bias.
In October, however, he lent his name to a fundraising letter mailed out by the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based free-market think tank, that asked “committed patriots across Washington to support (it) in taking on the union machine.”
Part of the letter focused on getting a right-to-work initiative on the ballot in Clallam County.
By January, Koster had been fired. Not for actually doing something wrong or because of any credible suggestion he might, but because of what he believed.
Make no mistake, John Lovick and the council appointed themselves Snohomish County’s thought police. And while they were at it, they assumed the roles of judge, jury and executioner in the case of a good man who happened to subscribe to a different political philosophy than they did.
If you don’t find that chilling — regardless of where you come down on the issues — you will when the pendulum swings and it’s your ideology that’s being criminalized.
But as bad as that is, there’s an even more sinister element at work here.
John Koster’s political conservatism was well-known when he was appointed ombudsman, and there were few if any complaints about it. Nor would there have been had he expressed his conservative views outside the office on any number of hot-button issues.
What cost him his job, however, was taking on the state’s public sector unions.
To his credit, Koster took sides with an organization committed to limited, accountable government, which made him the sworn enemy of those whose livelihood depends on growing the size of our bureaucracy because every new public employee who gets hired adds hundreds of dollars a year to the union coffers.
To a huge extent, that money is used to grease the palms of politicians who pass laws that put the interests of the unions before those of the public. Consequently, when the union wants someone fired, all it takes is a phone call.
When John Koster, on his own time and exercising free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, threatened to expose the elephant in the room, the phone call was made.
Thankfully, justice and common sense intervened and the county — after jerking Koster around for three years — finally conceded its case was unwinnable and settled for nearly all of what he was seeking.
And guess who’s picking up the tab.
Jeff Rhodes is managing editor for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank promoting free markets and limited, accountable government.