A MESSY POWER STRUGGLE on the King County Council two weeks ago displaced moderate Republican Council President Louise Miller with conservative Republican Pete Von Reichbauer. There are some likely consequences to the Republican consolidation: greater difficulty making up for I-695 budget cuts, and probable hits to social services and transit. What's not as well publicized, but equally important, is the Republicans' decision to remove Council Member Larry Gossett as chairman of the Law, Justice, and Human Services Committee, which oversees operations at the county jail. (With much less power, Gossett will still sit on the committee.) Gossett, who represents Capitol Hill and the Central Area, will now handle largely rural issues as chair of the Regional Policy Committee. The timing of this change is ominous: Events during the WTO conference, which Gossett followed closely, revealed abuses at the county jail that made street cops look merely impolite. Now, those abuses aren't likely to get the fine-tuned attention they deserve from the council.

The way Gossett sees it, there was concern in the Republican caucus about his public statements concerning conditions at the jail. "When I planned a meeting around these issues, members were upset," Gossett says. "Basically they condemned the messenger." The committee has been turned over to West Seattle Council Member Greg Nickels, who, in the words of his aide Marco Lowe, "was not involved in WTO." Nickels isn't likely to kick up a big fuss about abuses in the jail, thanks to his likely run for mayor in 2001.

Gossett, who is black, is a Central Area activist whose roots go back to the civil rights battles of the '60s. That sensibility clearly primed him to oversee the jail. Thirty-seven percent of the inmates in the King County Jail are black, almost four times the proportion reflected in the general population. Gossett aide Cindy Domingo says "disproportionality" is one of Gossett's chief concerns, and that he had hoped to press forward with addressing it further as chair. Domingo also boasted about Gossett's record as chairman: He was instrumental in stopping cuts in Human Services, and he helped launch the Safe Communities Initiative, which contacts youth in the schools to work on the roots of violence. And last year he oversaw the restructuring of the Juvenile Detention Center, where 38 percent of the internees are black.

Reports of abuse in the King County Jail during the WTO conference simply upped the ante for Gossett ["Jail House Shock," December 23, 1999]. Gossett, in fact, has a cousin who was briefly in the county jail the week of the WTO conference. "Brotherman," Gossett's cousin told him, "they were treating those white prisoners like they were niggers."

Gossett says the regular clientele of the county jail do not feel there is an avenue for their complaints, and moreover, many of them are so caught up in their circumstances, the political process seems a world away. Gossett says this shouldn't compromise "their right to be treated with human dignity." Gossett hopes pending lawsuits from the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild regarding jail abuses during the WTO conference will help reveal conditions for those still on the inside.

Council President Von Reichbauer's office did not return calls for this article.