Seattle has a new city attorney—Pete Holmes. In a contentious under–the-radar race, Holmes defeated incumbent Tom Carr by a surprisingly large margin. While one can debate what specific issues underlie the result, one theme stands out: The urge for change. But change from what? Or should we ask change to what?
Before thinking about the answers to those questions, what does the city attorney actually do? Unlike the district attorney in the Law and Order TV drama set in the New York City, the Seattle city attorney’s main responsibility is not to prosecute felony crimes. That role goes to the King County prosecuting attorney, Dan Satterberg, who prosecutes all felonies in King County including Seattle.
The Seattle city attorney is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanors—crimes with potential jail terms of up to one year. While not the headline-grabbing crimes we read about day to day in the newspapers or see dramatized on Law and Order, misdemeanors are much more likely to impact the average Seattle citizen: DUI, domestic violence, petty theft, and marijuana possession, for example.
In addition, the city attorney is responsible for defending the city in civil litigation ranging from personal injury and employment claims to land use disputes. In defending the city, the city attorney sets a tone for the city’s relationship with disgruntled citizens and bears responsibility for the fiscal impact of litigation. Finally, the city attorney provides advice to the executive and Legislative branches of city government. The quality of such advice is critical to sound decision-making by the mayor and city council.
A related question is who is the city’s attorney’s client? In the criminal context, the city attorney— in prosecuting crimes—is most clearly representing the people, and accordingly is granted a significant (but not absolute) degree of prosecutorial discretion. But the policy determinations as what acts should be criminalized and what penalties should be associated with those acts are decided by the legislature via the enactment of criminal laws.
On occasion, however, the “People” do speak as the legislature in enacting initiatives (see below). When responding to questions from the mayor, city council, or an administrative agency, the client is respectively the mayor, city council and administrative agency. But during his campaign, Pete Holmes said that the citizens of Seattle will be his “most important clients” and that he will make sure the “public’s interest” will be represented in every decision.
But what does this mean? How does Holmes or anyone know what the public wants? What is in the public’s interest? Unlike when advising the mayor, Holmes cannot ask the people what they want. There is the rare exception where the people have spoken such as in passing an initiative to make prosecution of marijuana possession the lowest priority of the city. There, Holmes should represent the citizen’s views and do a better job than Carr in carrying out the intent of the initiative. But elsewhere it will be hard to distinguish between Holmes’ personal view of what is in the Seattle citizen’s best interests and what the Seattle citizens actually think. (Things become problematic when city attorneys equate their political agendas with what "the people" want. See the dramatic example below, starring former conservative City Attorney Mark Sidran.)
What did Carr do especially well? There are a couple of initiatives that stand out. First, Carr did a lot of good work in domestic violence both in supporting victims and prosecuting serious offenders. Second, Carr worked with others to create community centered initiatives—such as the community courts with assigned community prosecutors—to help divert non-dangerous offenders from prison, promote community service, and provide support for rehabilitation. These types of community initiatives are our best hope for avoiding the repeat offender syndrome and turning petty offenders into dangerous offenders. Holmes should support and build on these initiatives.
And what did Carr not do well? Well the coordinated raid on bars was as a badly thought out and implemented initiative. I think we can count on Holmes to end this initiative. But Holmes should take this as a warning sign to tread carefully in engaging in so-called quality of life initiatives. As an elected official, our city attorneys have often pushed policy agendas for better or for worse. These agendas are touted as ways to improve the quality of life in the city.
The bar raids is one example. Another example was Mark Sidran’s “civility” initiatives as city attorney where he drafted and pushed for enactment of ordinances, e.g., punishing aggressive panhandling and sitting on downtown streets. The problem here is that one person’s view of what is good for quality of life is another’s view of repressive government. My suggestion is that Holmes should stick to being the best lawyer for the City as possible and shy away from pushing quality of life initiatives.
How can Holmes be the best lawyer for the city within his prime area of responsibility, prosecuting misdemeanor crimes? Recent events demonstrate that our system needs improvement in addressing mentally ill individuals. Similarly, our system provides inadequate support for the homeless, alcohol and drug addicted individuals, and at-risk youth. These populations constitute significant misdemeanor offenders whom the city attorney office prosecutes.
Holmes should focus his efforts on how the criminal misdemeanor system treats, prosecutes, supports and imprisons these individuals. He should work in conjunction with community members with experience working with these populations and with the mayor and city council. A thoughtful, coordinated and successful effort here would be a great legacy for Holmes when his term is completed.
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