In a departure from her traditional MO, Seattle City Council Member Heidi Wills is getting in Mayor Greg Nickels' face. Wills and council colleague Nick Licata are angling to curtail Nickels' options for revising the city's longstanding "police intelligence ordinance." Under cover of an otherwise innocuous-seeming resolution, the duo hope to mount a preemptive strike and ensure that a key element of the ordinance remains intact. Both the mayor's office and Seattle Police Department brass have recently expressed a willingness, even a need, to retool the 1979 law, which limits the scope of the SPD's domestic surveillance and intelligence gathering.

On December 29 the Seattle Times first reported that police officials--who in 2000 tried to blame their WTO failings on the ordinance's restrictions--again want to modify the ordinance. The SPD now cites that, thanks to Seattle's ordinance, federal agencies may be reluctant to allow Seattle access to information in a post-9/11 database program designed to allow local law-enforcement agencies to share intelligence.

The feds fear the civilian auditor appointed to review Seattle police files could release sensitive information publicly. Nickels seemed supportive of the police position, telling the Times: "I want us to get all the information we need to keep our people safe. If our intelligence ordinance in fact is a barrier to that, then I will propose changes to it."

The first law of its kind in the nation, the ordinance limited police intelligence gathering to persons reasonably suspected of having involvement in criminal activity, and mandated that a civilian auditor annually review intelligence files to confirm police are complying with the restrictions. The ordinance was enacted in 1979 after a high-profile scandal erupted when Seattle police were caught spying on and infiltrating lawful religious and political groups and maintaining detailed files on activists and prominent citizens.

The prospect that the civilian auditor review process could be gutted--as some police officials want--prompted Council Member Wills to act. She is drafting a broad resolution that calls for supporting the preservation of civil liberties in the face of federal expansion of surveillance powers embodied in the USA PATRIOT Act. Her resolution also states that any changes to the Seattle ordinance should be narrowly tailored and not infringe on the civilian auditor review process, Wills says.

"I haven't seen the proposed changes to the intelligence ordinance yet, but it's important to be proactive," Wills warns. She adds that while the mayor has not specified how far he's willing to go in altering the ordinance, her point is to get the city council on record in unequivocal support of the civilian auditor, thus ensuring that any changes Nickels might eventually propose will not weaken a time-tested enforcement mechanism that has served Seattle's politically active citizenry well.

Her resolution has the support of civil libertarians. "We support it and think it's a good idea," asserts Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Hugh Spitzer, who served as Mayor Charles Royer's legal counsel when the ordinance was originally drafted, contends, "The arguments made today for weakening the ordinance are precisely the same arguments made in 1979." If the independent auditor provision is eliminated, "we might as well chuck the whole thing," Spitzer argues.

Wills describes the police objections to the ordinance as "nonsense" and "false arguments," and emphasizes that the civilian auditor is always "selected for integrity and experience, and there's never been a case of a leak by an auditor since the law was first passed." The current independent auditor, respected attorney Jeff Robinson at Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender, appears to be lying low during the controversy. He did not return several calls requesting comment.

Wills has enlisted progressive Council Member Nick Licata as a co-sponsor of the resolution, and the two plan a hearing on it in Licata's civil-rights committee on January 28.

The mayor's office was apparently less than thrilled to learn of the proposed resolution. Michael Mann, the mayor's director of council relations, is said to have expressed objections to Wills' blanket affirmation of the current auditor review process, one source said.

Edsonya Charles, senior policy advisor to Mayor Nickels and his point person on the intelligence ordinance issue, would not comment on the council resolution itself, citing the fact that she had not yet seen the final text. As for revising the ordinance, she contends that the mayor's office is "still studying the issue, and until we finish our review no decisions have been made. It's not like something is happening."

In private, the mayor's office asserts that Nickels is a big supporter of civil liberties, and has no intention of weakening the ordinance. The mayor has yet to even be briefed by Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske on what changes the SPD would like to make, and though the mayor may accept some minor tinkering, if the police propose major changes, there will be resistance from the 12th floor, the mayor's people say. Kerlikowske declines to comment on efforts to modify the ordinance. Given the police brass' publicly stated antipathy to the law, however, Wills and Licata do not seem entirely convinced that the auditor provision of the law is safe. Hence, the preemptive resolution.

Whether council will pass the resolution is unclear. Lefty Council Member Judy Nicastro says she will support it. It's not so clear with others. Jim Compton, chair of the council's police committee, said flatly during a council hearing in January 2002, "I just want to be on record that any suggestion we alter the city intelligence ordinance is one I would oppose." However, Compton aide George Allen says Compton might change his mind if the mayor can show "specific, tangible" reasons for the changes. Not having seen Wills' resolution yet, Allen declined to comment on it.

Council Member Jan Drago is also on the police committee. Her aide refused to discuss the possible changes to the ordinance, would not even discuss Drago's general opinion of it, and declined an interview request. "Until we see what direction the mayor is going, she isn't going to make a comment," the aide said.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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