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Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Reardon's 1st year as county executive hasn't been all smooth sailing

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County Bureau

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Thomas Tyler, left, shakes hands with Aaron Reardon at an agricultural summit last month in Monroe. The meeting, part of Reardon's promise to more fully engage farmers, drew almost 350 of them.
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The frenetic pace of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon's first year in office impressed even his political foes, though some are still bristling at the young executive's aggressive style.

Reardon, 34, galloped through his agenda so rapidly that county officials and onlookers wonder whether he can keep it up, especially when his relationship with other elected officials is often less than congenial.

In September, Reardon capped his first year with a budget that recommended deep cuts, including 80 staff positions.

He insisted that a racetrack developer make an early commitment to a NASCAR track site near Marysville and Arlington, then walked away from negotiations because he feared a risk to taxpayers when the developer wouldn't pledge more money toward the project.

He's a moderate Democrat whose first-year goals — economic development, a balanced budget — were universal. For the most part, his personality, not his politics, has made him at times controversial.

His supporters call him bold and talented.

"I really admire his tenacity, and I'm convinced he's going to be a governor or a U.S. senator," said state Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Mukilteo.

But his opponents say his style is cocky and abrasive.

"His first year? How do I put this? It's been confusing, confrontational, and it's been difficult being a countywide elected official in Aaron's first year," Sheriff Rick Bart said. "He's just an arrogant son of a bitch."

Bart's assessment drew a sharp rebuke from Reardon, who criticized the Republican sheriff for making a personal attack.

Reardon replaced Bob Drewel, whose affable personality marked his years in the Executive's Office. The more serious, wonkish Reardon has been a contrast even in the day-to-day operations of county government. Employees dress more formally, and strict policies now bar staff members from talking to other elected officials or to reporters without permission.

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
County Executive's Office administrator Martha Robins consults with Executive Aaron Reardon as he heads out of his Everett office on his way to another meeting.

Though Drewel had a friendly relationship with individual Tulalip Tribes leaders, Reardon made the county's relationship with the tribes official by holding a May ceremony to sign a "memorandum of agreement" to work together. Reardon wanted to make the relationship more formal, said his spokesman, Mark Funk.

"Bob was a little more easier-going. Aaron is just a little tighter, that's all," said state Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip Reservation, a Tulalip leader.

Reardon has also reached out to the county's two smaller tribes, the Stillaguamish and Sauk-Suiattle, which didn't have much of a relationship with Drewel's administration. Reardon has regular meetings with leaders of those tribes.

"It's a little bit better," said Stillaguamish Chairman Shawn Yanity of his tribe's relationship with the county. "He's been very open, and he's asked questions."

There's no question that Reardon has kept the promises he made in his campaign.

He fulfilled a promise to more fully engage farmers by appointing a county agricultural coordinator and, along with GOP County Council Chairman John Koster, pulled off a successful agricultural summit last month with nearly 350 farmers in attendance.

He appointed a Citizens Cabinet of county leaders that produced a county business plan, something he had promised during his campaign.

As part of his promise to diversify the county's economy, he and Marysville officials reviewed a deal with International Speedway Corp., which had proposed a racetrack in North Snohomish County. He said he insisted that the corporation talk exclusively with Snohomish County about a local track site, which it did, choosing the site from a handful of finalists in September. The talks broke off seven weeks later.

Reardon set up a Web site to follow county departments' performance, allowing the public to look at response times, overtime costs, clerical errors and other statistics. He spoke in his campaign about making government more "transparent" and accountable.

And Reardon balanced the county budget, erasing what he said was a $13.4 million shortfall by making deep cuts to county departments. The council passed his budget unanimously last week after making some changes.

"We set clear objectives in December, and we laid out our plan of action, and we have achieved our goals," Reardon said.

Next year, he wants to restructure the county government and remove overlapping programs. Koster, the council chairman, said he is willing to work with Reardon on that, a change in tone from the relationship the two leaders had for most of the past year.

They clashed almost immediately, shooting searing memos back and forth about the budget and Reardon's restrictions on which staff members the council could ask for information. Reardon said he was being attacked because Koster and Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish, didn't like him. Koster said Reardon was secretive and power-hungry. Each said the other was engaging in partisan rhetoric.

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
County Council Chairman John Koster, left, said his relationship with Reardon "was a little rough" at first but has improved.

"I think initially he felt he had to maybe prove himself or flex his political muscles a little bit," Koster said. "It was a little rough out of the chute, and I think Aaron and I are doing a little better now."

Reardon's aggressive nature "comes off as a little abrasive sometimes," Koster said.

Reardon doesn't apologize for that.

"This is a leadership position," he said. "It is my responsibility, it is my obligation to set the county's agenda and clearly articulate that agenda."

Sax wouldn't comment for this article, but he has been consistently critical of the executive. The two even clashed when Reardon sent Sax a birthday card over the summer. Sax was upset that Reardon had looked in employees' personnel records for their birth dates.

Before voting for the 2005 budget last week, Sax proposed cutting three of Reardon's top advisers from the budget, saying too many paid analysts were "creating a buffer" between Reardon and county department heads. None of the other council members supported Sax's proposal.

Reardon also clashed with Bart, the sheriff, during the budget process this year. Bart said Reardon's recommendations for 2005 cut so much from the Sheriff's Office budget that he would be forced to lay off deputies. Reardon said Bart wouldn't have to let deputies go if he made other cuts.

Bart said he had a hard time communicating with Reardon about his priorities, and he said Reardon's budget process had wasted his staff's time. Most of all, Bart said, he was frustrated by what he termed Reardon's bossiness.

"Aaron's confidence sometimes rubs me the wrong way," Bart said. "I just have a hard time getting past his personality."

Reardon said the personal tone of county politics had caught him by surprise. He blamed his differences with the Republican members of the council on "partisanship," but the three Republicans don't often attack his policies. Instead, they say he's too aggressive and hasty, problems they blame in part on his youth.

Drewel, who served 12 years before leaving the office because of term limits, also clashed with the Republican-controlled County Council. But his disagreements with the council centered on policies. His relationship with council members was generally friendly.

But by the time Drewel was elected to his first term as county executive in 1991, he was 45 and had been president of Everett Community College for seven years.

Reardon made a faster ascent, which turns off some who see him as too ambitious.

Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1998 at 27, Reardon gained a reputation for barreling past obstacles.

"I had a lot to prove," he said. "I think I was very aggressive my first year in politics. I had to fight for everything I got."

His willingness to buck the system has sometimes burned him in public.

As a senator, he left the chamber to avoid a vote on an unemployment-insurance bill — only to be photographed buying coffee with another senator. The photo ran on Page 1 of The Seattle Times, and it, along with written reports, drew complaints from some who felt Reardon should have been present to vote.

In September, after learning that a developer had targeted a local site for a NASCAR track, he told a Times reporter in a telephone conversation that he didn't know what the developer would decide, then inadvertently left his phone off the hook and could be heard saying he had been "playing dumb."

He took some heat from minorities when he suspended a race-relations committee last summer after three meetings. Some members of the committee questioned his commitment to race relations. He has since pledged to restart the committee in January.

But Reardon's boldness is one of the things his supporters admire about him.

"I think he's shown a tremendous amount of courage," said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. "He is assertive with his agenda, but quite frankly, government oftentimes moves too slow."

Reardon shrugs off the standard criticisms he has always faced: He's too young, too brash, too upwardly mobile. He has already filed to run again for the office in 2007.

"I will let people make the decision on how we've done in four years," he said. "I'm not done yet."

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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