Seattle mayor, city attorney escalate fight over police
The bitter dispute between Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes could be headed to a courtroom showdown over who has the power to represent the city.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A bitter dispute between Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes over who has the authority to approve an independent monitor’s proposed police reforms could be headed for a courtroom showdown.
Declaring that “a lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions,” McGinn directed Holmes on Tuesday to obtain his written authorization before approving the monitor’s far-reaching proposals. In a memo to Holmes, McGinn cited what he called his role as the city’s chief executive officer and chief law-enforcement officer.
Holmes issued a statement hours later, calling McGinn’s stance “counterproductive” and a “sad day for Seattle” at a time when the city should be focusing on “lasting reform of our Police Department.”
Holmes maintains that as the elected city attorney he serves as the chief litigator under the City Charter, giving him the authority to respond to the monitor’s proposal based on the best interests of the city.
The split set the city on a collision course that may wind up before the federal judge overseeing the case or a state court judge, pitting McGinn and Holmes in a legal fight similar to a constitutional crisis over governing powers.
Holmes has already begun consulting outside attorneys about representing him, according to a source. In a letter to Holmes on Tuesday, McGinn’s legal counsel asked Holmes if he would be willing to join in a state court review to settle the dispute, according to a copy of the letter posted on the website of the newspaper the Stranger.
McGinn’s order to Holmes came as the monitor, Merrick Bobb, caught city officials by surprise Tuesday when he filed his proposed first-year plan to assure the Police Department complies with “substantial reform” to address federal findings of excessive force and evidence of biased policing.
The city agreed to the reforms in a settlement agreement reached with the Department of Justice in July.
Bobb submitted a 23-page plan to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is to hold a hearing on the status of the case next Tuesday.
Later in the day, Holmes filed a request with Robart asking for time to review the plan before offering a response.
The Justice Department, characterizing the plan as “what success looks like,” issued a statement Tuesday, saying it plans to “expedite” its review of the plan and “anticipates filing its notice of approval with the Court soon.”
Bobb, in his proposal, listed at least 19 “indicators” that he plans to use to determine whether the Police Department is meeting the terms of the agreement, including tight scrutiny of police supervision and relations with the community.
He also wrote he believes no new collective-bargaining agreement involving police officers may have “any provision” that conflicts with the settlement agreement.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said Tuesday the settlement agreement “does not trump collective-bargaining laws in the state of Washington.” He said McGinn has assured the union the settlement agreement doesn’t absolve the city of its bargaining obligations.
McGinn asked Holmes last week to remove himself from negotiations with Bobb on the shape of a monitoring plan, asserting Holmes had unethically interfered in discussions with Bobb about narrowing the scope of the plan and addressing the city’s long-held view disputing the Justice Department findings.
Holmes, who had suggested a more collaborative approach with Bobb, refused to step aside and denied that he had done anything improper.
In his strongly worded memorandum sent to Holmes Tuesday, McGinn told Holmes not to represent to the judge or the monitor that the city has approved the proposed monitoring plan without “written authorization from me that the plan satisfactorily meets our objectives.”
McGinn said whatever plan is adopted shouldn’t impose new requirements beyond the settlement agreement. He also wrote that the timelines, scope and compliance measures shouldn’t be of an “unknown duration and cost,” and that some extended timelines actually could delay police reforms.
If the city is unable to reach agreement with Bobb, McGinn said, then timelines to develop policies, training and procedures already mentioned in the settlement agreement “will govern.”
McGinn also told Holmes that, given the “state of communications between us,” he wanted to remind Holmes that his profession’s rules of conduct require “a lawyer to abide by a client’s decisions” and objectives.
“This is not intended to preclude you as a separately elected official from expressing your views on policy matters,” McGinn added.
Holmes, in his statement, said: “Now is the time when City leaders should be working together to achieve lasting reform of our Police Department. Under the rules of ethics and my personal concern for the City’s best interests, I cannot comment in detail on the mayor’s counterproductive statements, except to say that this is a sad day for Seattle. It is especially sad for the women and men of SPD who want us all to move forward, together.”
In his proposal, Bobb wrote that he planned to monitor whether use of force is properly documented and investigated, and whether “findings that force was out of policy” are referred to the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability for appropriate discipline.
He said he would hold sergeants accountable for ensuring the rank-and-file engage in “constitutional, unbiased policing,” with oversight by lieutenants and captains.
Bobb, the head of a nonprofit Los Angeles police-assessment center, also said he will, among other things, gauge the “levels of confidence and trust by all members of the diverse community” in the Police Department.
He wrote that would be measured by surveys, rates that crimes are cleared, cooperation from witnesses and full implementation of community-based policing at the precinct level, particularly in African-American and other minority communities.
O’Neill, the guild president, said that while some parts of the settlement, such as training, are not subject to collective bargaining, anything that changes officers’ discipline rights and procedures must be bargained as “working conditions.”
McGinn and Police Chief John Diazopposed the appointment of Bobb as monitor.
In another sign of the enmity between McGinn and Holmes, the mayor also directed Holmes not to approve any further expenses for Bobb without authorization from the city’s budget director.
McGinn cited “unresolved billing issues,” coming on the heels of questions that led Bobb and his team to remove as expenses what the City Attorney’s Office described as $22.50 plus tax for four drinks with meals and a $5.99 corkscrew.
As part of Bobb’s proposed monitoring plan, he said he will post invoices on his nonprofit’s website, including savings generated by his team and free work. Instead of staying in hotel rooms, Bobb and his team have rented a less costly apartment in Seattle and furnished it.
Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green and Mike Carter contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org