The Seattle City Council voted 7-1 Tuesday to fund the legal defense of Councilmember Kshama Sawant as she prepares for a court battle against an effort to recall her.
The ordinance would cover the costs of the outside lawyers Sawant has hired to fight the recall effort, the City Attorney’s Office said, a sum City Council staff estimated at $75,000.
Sawant recused herself from the vote and was excused from attending Tuesday’s special Council meeting.
“Councilmember Sawant was reelected less than a year ago,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who said he’d heard from many members of his district who wanted him to vote against funding Sawant’s defense. “Adequate legal counsel should be available to a duly elected official defending a recall petition whether or not they can afford such representation.”
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. They also allege 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.
Council President M. Lorena González repeated several times that their vote was not a statement one way or the other on the recall charges but rather a matter of following a precedent of funding the defense of elected officials.
State law provides that the city should cover recall expenses for elected officials if both the City Council and the City Attorney’s Office approve.
The city previously covered the legal expenses of then-Council President Richard Conlin when he faced an unsuccessful recall effort in 2011 over his support of the Highway 99 tunnel project.
“We have a process for picking our elected representatives, it’s through elections,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. “It’s a slippery slope if we start picking and choosing who does or does not receive these legal representations.”
Councilmember Debora Juarez said she would have first considered whether Sawant was acting within the scope of her official duties before deciding whether to fund her legal defense. Juarez was the lone no vote.
A hearing in King County Superior Court is scheduled for Wednesday to determine whether the recall effort will be allowed to proceed. The role of the judge assigned to the case, Judge Jim Rogers, is to assume the charges against Sawant are true and to determine whether they are specific and serious enough to merit a recall.
The state constitution allows elected officials to be recalled for violating their oath of office or for “acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office.”
If the court system allows the recall to move forward, 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.
It’s the second recall effort stemming from the city’s response to this summer’s mass protests over police brutality and systemic racism.
A King County judge earlier this summer allowed a recall 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 to help with her legal defense, the City Attorney’s Office said.
The effort to recall Sawant, led by Seattle resident Ernest Lou, has raised over $40,000 and is being represented in court by John McKay, a former U.S. Attorney, during the George W. Bush administration.
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