Nevertheless, when you view the city attorney's accomplishments collectively--as the following Sidran primer does--a specific agenda emerges. The ordinances that City Attorney Sidran has pushed through the city council read like a bourgeois attack on civil rights.
Sidran, 49, grew up in Rainier Valley (he graduated from Franklin High School) before attending Harvard and returning for law school at the University of Washington. He worked in the King County Prosecutor's Office from 1975 to 1985.
Sidran--whose job is to provide legal counsel to the city and prosecute misdemeanors--has turned the job into a legislative bully pulpit, if not a de facto mayor's office during the passive Norm Rice and Paul Schell years. It's a feat that Council Members Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata say clashes with Sidran's job to provide balanced counsel.
Sidran, a property owner with buildings worth over $2 million, embraces the "broken windows" philosophy that New York City used in the Giuliani years to "clean up" Times Square. (The "broken windows" theory maintains that cracking down on small crimes prevents bigger ones later.)
Despite Sidran's controversial policies, recent civil disturbances like the WTO protests in '99 and this year's Fat Tuesday riots have created a climate for a tough-on-crime mayor in liberal Seattle.
"From civility on our streets to protecting our parks, fighting the sale of cheap booze to street drunks, combating nightclub violence, drug trafficking in our neighborhoods, I have taken... controversial issues head on, and I have gotten results," Sidran said at a rainy mayoral campaign kickoff across the street from Amazon.com on March 27.
The following snapshot of Sidran's record is intended as a crash course on the infamous city attorney.
Civility Laws with Sidran's Handprint
1. "Public Urination" (Passed 8-0 by city council): This law increased the penalty for peeing in public, so now, rather than issuing a simple citation and sending a urinator on his or her way, the police can charge the offender with a misdemeanor. That means arrests, fines, and possibly even jail time. Critics wonder where homeless people are supposed to "go."
2. "Pedestrian Interference" (The city council passed two ordinances during '93-'94, passing them 8-0/9-0 respectively): The police have the power, under the interference laws, to cite or arrest a person who appears to be blocking a sidewalk or street by sitting or standing in the way. Critics argue that the police have used the laws to target homeless people, and more recently, protesters.
Sidran also used this legislation to strengthen a provision from previous legislation that prohibited aggressive panhandling. Now, police can cite someone for being "intimidating" if that person is heard swearing. Court rulings have identified panhandling as a first Amendment right.
3. "No Sitting" (The city council passed two ordinances during '93-'94, passing them 8-0/8-1 respectively): These laws were part of the city's strategy to "clean up" downtown. They outlaw sitting on any sidewalk between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. and come with fines up to $50, followed by jail time. Back in '97, then-mayoral-candidate Paul Schell and city council candidate Peter Steinbrueck denounced the law as an attack on homeless people. Schell now supports it because, as he told The Seattle Times right before his election, "there are a lot of small businesses that are really being hurt by people camping in their doorways."
4. "Poster Ban" (6-2): This law makes it illegal to post a flier on public property--poles, bus stops, etc. However, contrary to popular belief, Sidran did not push for this law. It was already in effect when he took office in 1990. Sidran strengthened the city's enforcement capabilities. Police can now issue $250 tickets on the spot to people caught postering, which makes many business owners and city maintenance workers happy (not to mention AK Media, which controls most of the public advertising in Seattle).
5. "Graffiti Ordinance" (8-1): This ordinance mandates civil penalties for private-property owners who fail to remove graffiti from their property.
6. "Parks Exclusion" (6-2): In response to complaints that the city's parks were becoming homeless campsites, Sidran pushed to ban people from parks who are caught drinking, camping, or committing acts of "misbehavior." Police have the power to ban people for up to a year if they are caught in repeated violation of the parks law. They can also exclude violators from particular neighborhoods. A 1998 ACLU study found that the law disproportionately targeted blacks and the homeless.
7. "Impound Ordinance" (8-1): This law allows the city to impound cars if the owners are caught driving with suspended licenses. Sidran claims the ordinance saves the city money through lower incarceration rates (he's jailing cars, not people) and makes the streets safer. Critics from Council Member Nick Licata's office claim the law gives the police too much power by allowing them to tow a suspect's car on the spot. Previously, if the police caught someone without a license, the suspect was arrested and then had the opportunity to challenge the arrest in court. Moreover, a recent study by the Seattle public defender's office found that people of color and the poor were being disproportionately impacted by the law. "It unfairly penalizes the poor because they are more likely to have their licenses suspended," says Seattle public defender Lisa Daugaard.
8. "Alcohol Impact Area" (8-0): This ordinance recommended guidelines for stores in Pioneer Square to restrict alcohol sales. Critics have pointed out the hypocrisy of cutting off alcohol to one segment of the population while keeping the booze flowing for Eastsiders who come into Pioneer Square, go to clubs, get drunk on $4.50 drinks, and drive home under the influence.
9. "Dangerous Animals" (6-0): This law allows the city to arrest pet owners if their dogs scare somebody.
Things Sidran Has Tried to Do
Added Activity Ordinance: This Sidran brainchild failed in 1999. The law would have required bar owners to get a special license--in addition to liquor and business licenses--if they wanted to have dancing or music at their clubs. Sidran said the law was part of his campaign to make music clubs more responsible for what goes on in and around their businesses.
Attorney David Osgood proved in court that the state law on which Sidran modeled his attack constituted prior restraint, which is unconstitutional.
Drug Nuisance abatement: Using drug nuisance abatement laws, Sidran went after a slew of bars and restaurants for housing drug activity. The Washington Court of Appeals ruled that Sidran applied the law in a discriminatory way when his office went after black nightclub Oscar's II. Indeed, of the drug abatement actions Sidran made public at the request of local club owner Chris Clifford, 93% targeted minority business.
Noise Ordinance: This law, vetoed in 1999 by Schell, would have increased the fines on music clubs that had violated more stringent noise restrictions.
Sidran's work hasn't been all bad. For example, he's defended the city's domestic partnerships policies, and he's started an environmental protection division at the City Attorney's Office.
Josh Feit, Pat Kearney, and Megan Seling contributed to this report.