City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday he will not abide by Mayor Mike McGinn’s request that he step aside from representing the city in negotiations with an independent monitor to develop a detailed plan for carrying out police reforms.
Holmes dismissed McGinn’s complaint that he had acted unethically, worked against the city and interfered with the talks, which grew out of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to curtail excessive force and biased policing in the Police Department.
The standoff plunged the city into a leadership crisis at a crucial time in the police-reform effort, as the monitor and the Police Department seek common ground on how to proceed with the changes.
In a brief statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Holmes’ office said he “will not screen himself from representing the City in this case.”
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It added, “The City Charter gives the City Attorney supervisory control of all litigation and, although the City has entered a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, this remains a pending lawsuit under the supervision of a federal judge. Mr. Holmes has violated no client confidences or breached any ethical obligations to his client, the City of Seattle. Mr. Holmes communicated his position to the mayor’s legal counsel in a private letter today.”
McGinn, speaking earlier in the day at a news briefing, said it was his view that the litigation concluded when the settlement agreement was reached and that he hoped to avoid a crisis with the elected city attorney.
He repeatedly said the solution was for Holmes to set up an “ethical screen” and to assign someone in his office to assist in the city’s dealings with the monitor, Merrick Bobb.
Pledging to press ahead with implementing the settlement agreement, McGinn said Holmes would be prohibited from acting as the city’s formal legal representative in the negotiations but was free to advocate his views outside the process.
In a written statement released Wednesday evening, McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus said the “issue reflects a fundamental question about the role of a city attorney.”
Pickus said Holmes sent an email to the mayor’s office Wednesday in which he “claimed he has final authority to decide what is in the best interests of the city.”
“We are examining our options on how to get a resolution to this fundamental question — is Mr. Holmes the city’s attorney bound by rules of professional conduct, or is he an independent policy maker with final decision- making authority?” Pickus said.
Bobb, who heads a nonprofit police-assessment center in Los Angeles, has been negotiating privately with the city to reach agreement on a key element of the settlement agreement — a monitoring plan that would include timetables, policies and compliance audits.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz wrote a letter to Bobb on Monday expressing concerns with some aspects of Bobb’s proposed plan, including its breadth.
Holmes responded with his own letter to Bobb and a federal attorney on Tuesday, suggesting that his office would be willing to take an “alternative path for negotiation.”
Holmes’ office and federal attorneys also obtained a court order this week from U.S. District Judge James Robart, extending by 10 days a deadline tied to the talks.
In response, the mayor’s legal counsel, Carl Marquardt, sent a pointed email to Holmes on Tuesday afternoon, accusing him of “undercutting” Diaz and breaching the attorney-client relationship. Within hours, Marquardt’s email had been leaked to the news media.
McGinn said at Wednesday’s news briefing that Holmes had sought the 10-day extension without notifying him. McGinn called it a lapse even though the deadline request was a housekeeping move. He also said Holmes had improperly shared confidential information in his letter to Bobb.
The mayor said he didn’t plan to file a bar complaint against Holmes, citing the “ethical screen” as a satisfactory remedy.
It remained unclear who will represent the city when Robart, who is overseeing the case, holds a hearing on the progress of the case on March 12.
Robart, who has taken an active role in the case, could be called on to settle the question.
Also unknown was whether McGinn would seek to prevent Holmes from participating in the case as it proceeds over the next several years, or would try to limit Holmes’ involvement only in the negotiations with Bobb.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org