A King County Superior Court judge has ruled that the recall petition, seeking to remove Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant from office, can go forward.
Judge Jim Rogers found four of the six charges leveled against Sawant to be both specific enough and sufficient to allow the process to proceed. It’s the second politically charged recall effort against a Seattle elected official in the wake of this summer’s mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
“The petitioner has shown actual knowledge of facts indicating that the Councilmember intended to commit an unlawful act,” Rogers wrote in his order.
A group of Seattle residents is leading the Sawant recall push, alleging violations in six circumstances, including when she let demonstrators into City Hall during a nighttime protest in June and spoke at a protest in front of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. They also alleged that she encouraged protesters to occupy Seattle Police’s East Precinct, “helped create the Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP) Zone,” used city resources to promote a ballot initiative and delegated employment decisions in her office to her political party.
Rogers dismissed the charges related to the East Precinct and the CHOP, but allowed the others to move forward.
Rogers’ role is to assume the charges against Sawant are true and to determine whether they are specific and serious enough to merit a recall.
Dmitri Iglitzin, Sawant’s attorney, pointed out in arguments Wednesday that Sawant has been elected three times, most recently less than a year ago, and said the recall petitioners were trying to redo those elections because they disagree with her politics.
“We have elections in this state and in this city, and those elections are where the decision as to who is holding this office is supposed to be determined,” he said. “This is on its face, by any fair reading, a political screed against Councilmember Sawant.”
John McKay, an attorney representing recall petitioner Ernest Lou, said Sawant needed to be held accountable for her actions, comparing her obliquely to President Donald Trump.
“I realize that we’ve seen this happen at the highest levels of our government,” McKay said, but “I hope that we are not living in a time in which our elected officials are not held accountable for violations of the law.”
Rogers, in his order, ticked through the charges one by one, asking first whether enough facts were presented that there was evidence of “malfeasance or misfeasance,” and second, whether the conduct was substantial and had no legal justification.
He found that there was enough evidence that Sawant has delegated hiring and firing positions in her office to her Socialist Alternative party. He writes that that could be seen to violate the Seattle Municipal Ethics Code, which requires city business to be done by city officials and employees.
Rogers found that there was substantial evidence that Sawant’s office spent $2,000 on efforts to support a “Tax Amazon” ballot initiative.
“These are actual resources being spent to promote an initiative, which is prohibited by law,” Rogers wrote. “These facts show actual knowledge of facts indicating that the Councilmember intended to commit an unlawful act.”
Rogers wrote that Sawant was pictured speaking at a protest in front of Durkan’s house, even though Durkan’s address is protected by a state confidentiality program because of her past work as a federal prosecutor.
“The allegations, supported by a basis of knowledge, are that the Councilmember and fellow organizers knew the Mayor’s address, knew it was confidential, and led the protestors right to the Mayor’s home,” Rogers wrote.
A significant portion of the argument in court Wednesday focused on the night of June 9, when Sawant used her key card to unlock City Hall and let hundreds of protesters in for a nighttime rally in the wake of the killing of George Floyd — even as most city buildings were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was not an unintentional action, she did not drop her pass key on the sidewalk and someone just picked it up,” McKay said. “She brought in hundreds of protesters. It was in the violation of an executive order.”
But Iglitzin said Sawant violated no rule or law in opening up City Hall.
“They have not shown you that there is a City Council ordinance that prevents Councilmember Sawant from bringing people into City Hall for any reason she deems appropriate, in her discretion,” Iglitzin said.
Rogers sided with McKay.
“It is very difficult to ignore the allegation (and the underlying facts) that City Hall was locked to the public precisely because of the pandemic and because of the public health Proclamations of the Governor,” he wrote.
If Rogers’ decision survives a possible appeal, petitioners would need to collect more than 10,000 signatures from residents of Sawant’s Capitol Hill-based district in order to send the recall to voters.
The Seattle City Council voted on Tuesday, at Sawant’s request, to fund Sawant’s legal defense in her recall battle.
A King County judge earlier this summer allowed a recall effort against Mayor Jenny Durkan to move forward. The recall alleges that Durkan failed to institute policies after police used tear gas on protesters. Durkan is appealing the judge’s decision to the state Supreme Court, which is scheduled to consider the case in October.
Durkan has not asked the City Council to fund her legal defense, and her office did not respond Wednesday when asked how Durkan was funding her defense.