Opinion

Tragedy stains King County Assessor's office | Bob Roegner

“Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys” is a refrain from an old song.

Mothers, you may want to add “or politicians” to that melancholy thought. Politics can be a cruel and unforgiving profession when personal challenges are played out through the visual and print media for all to see in their most unvarnished form.

According to media reports, King County Assessor Scott Noble has been charged with two felony counts of vehicular assault and DUI stemming from an accident in January. He will be arraigned March 19. Noble was first elected in 1992 and was re-elected to his fifth term in November 2007.

Noble’s ascension to the assessor’s office was itself couched in tragedy. Republican State Rep. Bruce Holland was elected to the position and passed away a few months later. Former Employment Security Commissioner Norwood Brooks was appointed to replace him, and Noble defeated Brooks to claim the balance of the term. Now 17 years later, Noble is confronted with his own tragedy and a fight to save his political career.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 18, Noble was involved in a head-on collision on I-5 as he headed south in the northbound lanes. Noble struck a car with two occupants who, fortunately, were not seriously injured — but their car was totaled, as was Noble’s. He spent several days in the hospital. Noble registered a 0.22 percent on the breathalyzer.

If Noble were convicted of a felony, he would lose his right to vote and would forfeit his office. The legal portion of this saga has yet to unfold and there are still plenty of unanswered questions. However, both regional newspapers have called for him to resign while acknowledging the many positive changes he has brought to the office. The state chairs of both parties have also urged resignation.

So far, no elected officials are making any public statements as to Noble’s legal problems or his political future. But behind the scenes, there is significant speculation about both. While Noble was elected as a Democrat, the public voted to make the office non-partisan last fall.

If Noble is able to traverse the legal system in such a way as to avoid a felony, he could complete his term and decide whether to face the voters in 2011. If he does have to leave office, the King County Council would choose a replacement. Depending on when that occurs, the replacement could face the voters this fall or be able to hold the office until the 2011 election.

To date, none of the people who might be interested in the appointment — and there could be several — are making any overt moves. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation. Attorney General Rob McKenna’s office is handling the case because the county prosecuting attorney’s office represents the assessor’s office and wanted to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. McKenna, a Republican, previously served on the county council. But McKenna’s designation of his chief deputy as co-counsel sends a powerful legal and political message.

How will this play out? It’s too early to tell. The legal process has to conclude first, and while the political process will run concurrently, it won’t surface until the legal process has been completed. I was Chief Deputy County Assessor for several years and know many of the people involved. There aren’t any winners in this tale. Not Noble, not his wife and family, not the two victims, not the department’s managers whose jobs could be on the line, and not the hardworking appraisal staff.

Sad? Tragic? Avoidable? There isn’t anything about this that will make that pit in your stomach go away.

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