On her last business day in office, a newly released document shows, outgoing Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told the city’s police chief and 911 call center director that they should continue using bonuses to hire police officers and dispatchers this year, though the City Council had voted to stop the bonuses effective Dec. 31.
And that’s exactly what happened after Durkan outlined her stance in a Dec. 30 memo to interim Chief Adrian Diaz and Director Chris Lombard. Five police officers and at least 13 dispatchers were hired with bonuses in January, according to an email from new Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration to Councilmember Lisa Herbold on Feb. 4.
But the January bonuses weren’t budgeted for by City Hall.
Though Durkan also notified the Harrell administration about her view in a separate Dec. 30 memo, the administration missed the message and didn’t realize until late January that bonuses were still being granted, Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell wrote in the email to Herbold, the council’s public safety committee chair.
The Seattle Police Department and the city’s Community Safety Communications Center “have continued to offer incentive bonuses throughout the entire month of January, unbeknown to me, Mayor Harrell, or, as far as I’m aware, any member of the Harrell administration,” the deputy mayor wrote.
“I have since directed both SPD and CSCC to cease offering the supposedly sunsetted bonuses immediately and to withdraw any related advertising and communications. Council was clear in its intent and had the legal authority to do so.”
Now the Harrell administration and the council need to sort out whether the council’s authority was violated and, potentially, how to pay for the January bonuses. The Harrell administration didn’t immediately Wednesday share how much money was promised or awarded in bonuses last month.
A spokesperson for Durkan defended the directive in a statement Thursday, citing recent crime statistics.
“Former Mayor Durkan issued the emergency order because Seattle was in the middle of a public safety emergency that has only gotten worse,” she said. “Former Mayor Durkan agrees with Mayor Harrell’s recent comments calling for an increase in the number of officers in the Seattle Police Department and strong action to address gun violence and public safety.”
“By law, the Seattle City Council had 48 hours to take some action on the emergency order, or after that act by ordinance, but they affirmatively decided to do neither. Mayor Durkan’s administration moved forward in the best interest of the city and public safety.”
Durkan did not answer questions about her communications with Harrell or the City Council over the decision.
The Harrell administration learned about Durkan’s directives on Jan. 27, and learned bonuses were still being offered on Jan. 28, Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for the mayor, said Wednesday.
“This new information directly conflicted with how the Durkan administration had previously briefed the incoming Harrell administration on these bonuses,” Housen said.
Apart from what’s already happened, the new administration and the council need to discuss whether to offer hiring incentives to police officers, 911 dispatchers and other city employees in the future, Herbold said. An analysis on the issue is due soon. Harrell hasn’t yet said what he wants to do moving ahead.
The mess stems from a debate months ago.
Durkan and most council members were on the same page in 2019, when they worked together to authorize bonuses for new officers on a temporary basis. But that program ended during the pandemic.
When Durkan sought to relaunch the strategy last fall, she argued that the bonuses were necessary to address urgent staffing shortages. A number of council members objected.
Rather than wait for the council to include or not include the bonuses in the 2022 budget, Durkan issued an emergency order on Oct. 29 authorizing bonuses of up to $10,000 for new recruits and up to $25,000 for transfers from other jurisdictions.
Almost a month later, on Nov. 22, the council voted 8-1 to pass a resolution amending Durkan’s emergency order — capping the bonus spending at $500,000 and setting a Dec. 31, expiration date for the recruitment tool.
In her Dec. 30, memo to Diaz and Lombard, Durkan wrote: “Based on consultations with legal counsel, it has been concluded that the City Council’s actions to limit the Emergency Order were not effective. Thus, you should continue to hire and implement the terms of the Order, until incoming Mayor Harrell or the City Council effectively … extend or alter the terms of the Order.”
In Durkan’s Dec. 30 memo to Harrell, she cited a clause in her emergency order that said, “The Council shall endeavor to act on any order within 48 hours of its being presented to the Council by the Mayor.”
Durkan wrote in the memo to Harrell, “Based on consultation with legal counsel, it was concluded that Council’s failure to act on my Emergency Order in the time frame imposed by ordinance renders their actions ineffective as they did not endeavor to act within 48 hours as required by law.”
In an interview Wednesday, Herbold called Durkan’s 48 hours argument “absurd,” highlighting the meaning of the words “endeavor to.”
“The Law Department has told us they did not give her any advice,” or at least not that advice, Herbold said.
Durkan’s memos were sent at 6 p.m. on Dec. 30 (Dec. 31 was a city holiday), Monisha Harrell wrote in her Feb. 4 email, saying she missed the message.
“It was my belief (as per all the information provided to us by the outgoing Executive’s team via transitional in-person briefings and prior written documentation) that the incentive pay was ending on December 31st. I should have verified the Departments understanding of the same after we entered office,” she wrote.
In a slide show transition presentation to the Harrell administration on Nov. 24, just two days after the council vote, Durkan’s team explicitly noted the incentives would end on Dec. 31 and were not funded in the 2022 budget, according to a document shared Wednesday. In the same slide, she advised Harrell to “renew” the incentives on Jan. 1, “to avoid [a] chilling effect.”
Housen said that between the slide aknowleging the end of the incentives and multiple verbal discussions afterward, the Harrell administration had no reason to believe Durkan was planning to override the council’s decision, until the last minute memo.
“We would like to work with Council to find a way to retain these new hires and pay them the incentives offered to them in their hire letters,” Monisha Harrell added in her email about what she called “this entire unfortunate situation.”
Proceeding as if the council’s resolution never passed could threaten the council’s authority, but withdrawing the January bonuses could be a legal risk, Herbold said. City Hall needs to chart a path forward that addresses both of those concerns, she said.
Harrell could theoretically issue his own emergency order for bonuses, Herbold noted. Housen said the mayor “will continue to work with Council on future strategies to improve SPD, CSCC and citywide staffing.”