Before Seattle’s newly elected leaders are even sworn in, City Council members are brazenly undercutting the voters’ decisive mandate to make the city safer.
On Monday, council members should reject a fast-track effort to approve a bill that would give the council unprecedented political leverage over prosecution policy.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis engineered legislation that would hamstring City Attorney-elect Ann Davison’s independence — without consulting her until after a bill was drafted. Lewis wants Davison to report to the council on the office’s operations in a way the defeated City Attorney Pete Holmes never had to in 12 years in office.
That’s a brazen political power play. This is not simply the “transparency” measure Lewis says it is. Davison is right to urge the council to set aside this wrongheaded power grab. Voters chose Davison’s community-protection policies over Holmes’ shrugging leniency. The council has no business putting hurdles in her path and should abide by her request to back off.
“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office,” Davison wrote to the Council Thursday, “none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office. Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor.”
Lewis and departing Council President M. Lorena González sponsored this bill requiring the city attorney to report case data to the council every quarter. The city attorney, not the council, is elected to handle misdemeanor cases in Seattle. Yet the bill would impose the council’s ideas about which cases go to courts and which are diverted into community programs. Lewis, who worked for Holmes prior to joining the council, wants the case data to influence how the council funds the office’s operation.
That’s hardball politics behind a veil of bureaucracy. Sadly, it fits right in with this council’s recent history of bad governance power plays. In 2020, the council messed with Seattle Police budgets and policies without deigning to speak with Chief Carmen Best, driving her from office. In August, the council majority created for itself a budget-forecasting office in possible violation of the City Charter, even though the mayor’s office already performs that duty.
At a committee meeting Thursday, Lewis, González and council public safety Chair Lisa Herbold voted to send this wrongheaded attack to the full council, rejecting Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s sensible request to at least pause the bill until Davison takes office. The full council should now stop the bill, at least temporarily, rather than let it become yet another negative milestone of city policy.
The data-reporting requirements are an effort to monitor how faithfully the city attorney’s office is sending cases to diversion programs instead of prosecution. But they were drawn up without consulting Davison and require her to present the council quarterly with racial and demographic information about people charged and crime victims, including housing status, employment and income. Lewis said he has been working on the bill since August and showed Davison a draft the day before he filed it. During all that time, he should have thought to ask if she believed a prosecutor ought to keep records on the income of people alleged to have committed crimes.
Lewis said he would have filed the bill regardless of whether Davison or her anti-prosecution opponent had won. That doesn’t make it better.
González, who lost her mayoral bid decisively, doubled down on the bad policy, adding an amendment requiring Davison to give the council 90 days’ notice before changing any diversion policies.
What a way to start a relationship.
Davison steps into office with a two-year backlog of unfiled cases, a massive 3,885-file stack including assaults, domestic violence and thefts police have brought over and Holmes has let languish. Through a spokesperson, Holmes blamed the pandemic court slowdown and a short-handed staff due to departures. Voters elected Davison to manage this mountain of casework and help make Seattle’s public-safety apparatus functional again. The council has stepped up funding to expand diversion programs and should aid Davison without hamstringing her independence.
González leaves the council at the end of the month, which makes her rush to make policy understandable though not excusable. Lewis has no such excuse. He ought to set aside this power play before it creates the first wound of a fresh political war.