Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis has a lot to learn if he wishes to advance in his nascent career as a press critic. His criticism of this editorial board for urging rejection — or simply postponement — of a bill to extend council power over the city attorney’s office blazed through mischaracterizations and landed squarely in gaslighting territory.
As a Dec. 12 editorial stated, the flaws with his proposal ran deep and deserved further refinement than the council was taking time to conduct. He pushed back at the following council meeting, claiming his was a “fairly innocuous good government bill” for “simple baseline data.” He spun that the newspaper’s editorial must have been about a different, never-proposed bill, then claimed the editorial was an attack on transparency.
These fanciful stretches worked. The council voted 7-1 to pass his bill, which tracks how faithfully the city attorney is meeting the council’s agenda for diverting cases from courts and jail into community programs. If “transparency” is the priority Lewis said it should be, the public deserves to know how baldly Lewis mischaracterized facts to win the day.
The legislation requires the city attorney to report 15 categories of data connected to the justice system inside and beyond the office, from prosecution decisions to statewide recidivism. They are as complex as tracking alleged offenders’ housing stability and “identification of barriers preventing individuals … from completing the program.” I’ve spent years reporting on criminal-justice issues across America, long enough to know the barriers confronting a person in the system can be deeply involved stuff. Lewis ought to understand this from his time working under outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes. Yet he called it “simple.”
In the same council meeting, Lewis rattled off eight other sections of city code that compel other city offices to report data to the council, as if these somehow justified the new bill. Virtually all required little more than simple counting: days of family leave taken, the city’s usage of recycled products and the like. But you’d have to delve into Seattle Municipal Code to learn that. Lewis offered no explanatory descriptions, simply spouting code-citation numbers and claiming they supported his point.
Voters elected incoming City Attorney Ann Davison to be a stronger prosecutor after 12 years of Holmes’ leniency eroded city safety. Davison deserved more opportunity to help define criteria the council will judge her by at budgeting time. In an interview, Lewis said he’d been working on the bill since August, the month voters eliminated Holmes from the runoff election. He showed Davison the draft bill the day before he filed it.
That’s hardly “innocuous good government.” It strongly resembles railroading through a policy to preempt a new officeholder. He successfully fought Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s request for a delay until Davison’s term starts. The council routinely grants postponement requests like that. Further, the Public Safety Committee split on supporting the bill, which usually triggers a delay before the council votes. Yet this legislation got fast-tracked.
On the campaign trail, Davison committed to running a transparent office, answering yes to an ACLU questionnaire that asked if she’d set up a public-facing website reporting demographics of prosecutions and diversions into community programs.
Lewis twisted this, telling the council the questionnaire showed “the support of City Attorney-elect Davison for this legislation” — though that was inked in September, and the bill detailing an extensively deeper set of information-tracking wasn’t publicly available until December. Lewis didn’t mention this inconvenient fact. He mocked Davison’s written objections to his bill, along with this newspaper’s objections, as “strange bedfellows opposing more transparency.”
Hardly. Bad processes produce bad outcomes. This one bungled a chance to establish legitimate transparency. Even Lewis had to concede the path this bill took would “look strange.” He got that part right. Back in November, the council voted to boost the city attorney’s budget 9% and earmark funding for diversion programs. Weeks later Lewis and departing Council President M. Lorena González cited this funding as justification for requiring the new suite of data reporting. All of this played out with only cursory consultation of the incoming officeholder.
Here’s how government is supposed to work: an agency proposes a program and asks for money. The legislative body — the council — decides whether to fund it and what accountability measures to require. Debate ensues. If there’s an agreement, the money funds the new policy, with the known strings attached. As is sadly frequent, the Seattle City Council didn’t care to understand that the horse goes before the cart.
Seattle deserves a truly transparent government that works in good faith and clear daylight. Now that these data-reporting requirements are set in city law, Lewis and the other council members who will use them to set next year’s city attorney budget should resist the temptation to manipulate facts as Lewis just did.