Independence Examiner, Tuesday 10/12/04

Report urges greater independence for county ombudsman

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

The Jackson County office investigating citizens' complaints against the county needs an overhaul, concludes a consultant who reviewed the organization.

Duncan Fowler of Fowler Consulting in Vashon Island, Wash., was hired by the Jackson County Legislature in March to conduct the review of the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints.

The report contains several recommendations for major changes at the OHRCC. The goal is to make the organization more independent, and in doing so, to function better at serving citizens and county.

A brief background

The OHRCC was created in 1970 and given powers under Article X of the Jackson County Home Rule Charter. It was primarily designed to investigate discrimination complaints filed against the county. The OHRCC was also given powers to investigate complaints involving harsh, oppressive, unjust or unfair actions committed by any county officer, board, commission or employee.

The Fowler Report is the first external review of the OHRCC in its 34-year history. Legislators approved the review after hearing citizens' concerns about maintaining the independent nature of the organization. Some citizens believe the OHRCC suffers from several conflicts of interest, due to close ties with the county executive office.

The Fowler Report agreed with many of the citizens' concerns, basing its findings on comparisons of OHRCC operations to the standards of the United States Ombudsman Association.

The Fowler Report stated that the intent of the review was not to be critical of the OHRCC or its eight-member governing body, the Human Relations and Citizens Complaint Commission.

The HRCCC is appointed solely by the county executive and has the power to hire and fire the county ombudsman at any time. The HRCCC can also review decisions of the county ombudsman.

Findings, recommendations

The Fowler Report said the county should be proud of the OHRCC, which was one of the first five local ombudsman offices in the nation. However, it also stated the experiment of combining the appointment and oversight of the ombudsman by the HRCCC hasn't worked well.

"The review found that the executive and the executive branch agencies have extraordinary control over an agency that is supposed to be independent and primarily investigate executive branch agencies," the report stated. "The existing structure (of the appointment process) has provided the executive opportunity to shape the HRCCC based on who is appointed to its membership and selected as chair. ... In fact, interviews with several current commissioners indicated that they knew the executive either through political affairs or on a social basis."

The report also cited testimony from the widow of Maynard Harvey, a long-serving member of the HRCCC, who recalled her husband saying the county executive had called and asked for his resignation. According to Mrs. Harvey, her husband believed it was because the executive wanted to see the county ombudsman replaced.

A current HRCCC member gave a similar report, saying that a message had been left for her from the executive. She stated that while she never spoke to the executive directly, she understood the call was to ask her to resign as well.

When County Executive Katheryn Shields was questioned about these accusations, said she did not recall asking any HRCCC members to resign.

To keep these impressions from forming in the future, the Fowler Report recommended that power of the executive and executive branch agencies over the OHRCC be severely limited. Fowler wanted to ensure the executive could not select the people who appoint or remove the ombudsman. To do so, he recommended eliminating the HRCCC and having the County Legislature take over its responsibilities. Appointment of an ombudsman to a four-year term would be made with the vote of eight out of nine legislators, with the county executive having the power of veto for cause. Override of the veto would take six of nine votes.

These changes would require a vote of citizens, because they require revision of the Jackson County Home Rule Charter.

Lack of staff

The Fowler Report found that in recent years there has been an increasing number of inquiries (both complaints and requests for information or referral services) to the OHRCC. It also showed staff levels of the office have declined since its inception. There were originally five employees when the organization was founded, four employees from 1982 to 1986, and three employees ever since. However, for at least the last six months the OHRCC staff was in reality down to two members, because of difficulty in replacing an investigator position that was vacated.

An argument in the report stated that the executive branch exercised "inappropriate control" over the OHRCC, by delaying the hiring of the new investigator for at least six months after the position was vacated. It recommended that the OHRCC have independent power to hire and fire its own staff members, without needing approval from the executive's manager of finance or the human resources department.

It also recommended that OHRCC staff members not be subject to the status of being a merit employee, which puts employee pay increases in control of the executive office.

"The ombudsman should not be required to hire the favorite of another governmental official or ignore the shortcomings of a partisan protected staff member or share supervisory responsibility with someone outside of the office," the Fowler Report stated.

The Fowler Report also recommended that the OHRCC have an independent legal adviser provided, because the executive-appointed county counselor could have a conflict of interest when advising the OHRCC.

"The ability to have independent legal advice is critical for an ombudsman. The ombudsman should not have to rely on the same legal advisers who also provide advice to those agencies he/she is investigating when there is a legal controversy," the Fowler Report stated.

So now what?

With the report filed, it is now up to the Jackson County Legislature to reassess the role it wants the OHRCC to play in county government. Any recommendations of the Jackson County Legislature are likely to require charter changes, so county citizens will also have to play a part to improve the organization.

"We do believe that if Jackson County uses the recommendations in the report as a guide for improving the structure and operation of the OHRCC, everyone in Jackson County citizens, government and ombudsman's office will benefit," wrote Robin Matsunaga, president of the United States Ombudsman Association, in a letter within the report.

Legislator Robert Stringfield, 1st District At-large, said he agreed with the recommendations in the report, including eliminating the HRCCC and having the Legislature appoint the ombudsman.

Ombudsman Deborah Tircuit, current director of the OHRCC, commented that she supports a majority of the recommendations in the report. However, she does not support the elimination of the HRCCC. Instead, she would like to see HRCCC members appointed by the Legislature.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail jamesd@examiner.net or call 350-6322.
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