Seattle may cover the legal expenses that Mayor Jenny Durkan incurred while battling a recall petition that the state Supreme Court tossed out in October.
Durkan, who announced Monday she would not seek reelection in 2021, has asked the City Council to approve legislation authorizing the city to pay her expenses, estimated to be $240,000. The news site PubliCola first reported the legislation on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court issued a written ruling Thursday explaining why it unanimously rejected the recall petition. The case was brought by petitioners who argued the mayor violated her oath of office to maintain peace and order by allowing police to endanger the public with tear gas and other weapons during protests against police brutality and racism earlier this year.
Had the petition been cleared by the court and had the petitioners collected enough signatures, a special election would have been held to remove Durkan from office or keep her there.
The council, scheduled to vote Monday on whether to pay Durkan’s legal tab, chose in September to fund Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s legal expenses in her recall case, which is still active. State law says cities can cover recall expenses for elected officials.
While her recall case was active, Durkan consistently declined to say how she was paying for her defense.
The mayor didn’t initially request funding in her case because she assumed it would be “quickly dismissed at the King County Superior Court with minimal fees,” spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said in an email. Instead, a King County judge allowed the petition to advance, in part, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
After the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling against the recall, Durkan consulted her lawyers, ethics officials and the City Attorney’s Office, Nyland said. While various elected officials have been subjected to recall attempts in Washington, “none that we know of have borne the expense of the litigation,” Nyland said.
“Given the unanimous ruling to reject the recall, the Mayor submitted her legal fees to the City Attorney for payment consistent with other cases. The Mayor agrees this recall process was a terrible use of taxpayer dollars,” Nyland said.
The council voted 7-1 to fund Sawant’s recall expenses, with Sawant recusing herself and Councilmember Debora Juarez objecting. The petitioners pushing to recall Sawant say she violated her oath of office when she let demonstrators into City Hall during a protest in June and delegated employment decisions in her office to her political party, among other actions.
“We have a process for picking our elected representatives, it’s through elections,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said at the time.
In a brief October ruling, the Supreme Court called the Durkan recall allegations “deeply troubling” but concluded the charges were insufficient for recall.
Thursday’s opinion, written by Justice Mary Yu, expanded on that decision. While the court must consider allegations in recall petitions as true, the petitioners needed to show Durkan’s actions were “manifestly unreasonable,” Yu wrote.
The petitioners suggested Durkan should have tried to stop the police from hurting protesters by firing then-Chief Carmen Best. But Best had more experience than Durkan with police matters, and abuses have allegedly continued since Best retired in September, Yu noted.
The petitioners also argued Durkan should have directed the police to comply with a federal court order barring the indiscriminate use of crowd weapons. The mayor did direct the police to comply, although they may not have done so, Yu wrote.
Seattle is supposed to seek permission from a federal judge when making changes that affect police reforms. Even had Durkan banned tear gas and pepper spray, limited use of those tools “is not manifestly unreasonable,” Yu wrote.
“If the alarming factual allegations in this case are true … then those responsible must be held accountable, including Mayor Durkan,” the justice wrote. “However, our precedent does not allow Mayor Durkan to be held accountable … through the process of a recall election.”
Meanwhile, the push to recall Sawant continues. A King County judge allowed the recall to move forward in September on four charges.
The petitioners say Sawant should be recalled for letting protesters into City Hall, speaking at a protest in front of Durkan’s house (Durkan’s address is protected by a state confidentiality program because of her previous work as a U.S. attorney), allegedly delegating hiring and firing in her office to her Socialist Alternative organization and spending $2,000 in office money on a “Tax Amazon” ballot effort.
Sawant has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to consider the case and rule on Jan. 7, 2021.
Both sides in the Sawant recall attempt are fundraising as if the Supreme Court will approve the recall and the decision will be sent to the voters.
The Sawant recall campaign, led by Seattle resident Ernest Lou, has raised more than $180,000. Top donors include the Nordstrom family and Sound Strategies. The Kshama Solidarity Campaign has raised more than $96,000 to defend against her recall, with donations coming from all across the country.
Correction: This story has been updated to note that a top donor to the Recall Sawant campaign is Sound Strategies, not Sound View Strategies.