by Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit

Remember City Attorney Mark "Unconstitutional" Sidran? His track record for disrespecting civil rights was so embarrassing that during his 2001 bid for mayor we just handed the microphone over to Washington State and King County judges as they threw out Sidran ordinances one after another. To see a scary Sidran synopsis, go to www.thestranger.com/2001-09-13/five.html.

Or you could just check out the current city attorney's performance. On a range of issues that hail straight from Sidran's greatest-hits album, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr seems to be toeing the Sidran line. Despite court rulings against both laws, Carr has kept Sidran's auto-impound ordinance in place and--even worse--has appealed the August 2002 state supreme court decision overturning the poster ban. What makes Carr's tenure so frustrating is that during his 2001 city attorney campaign, he denounced Sidran's record, writing in his voter's pamphlet statement that "Seattle's image... has been undermined by... laws that unfairly target the homeless." Two years later, Carr continues to play himself as a groovy liberal dude. (At least Sidran was honest.)

For Carr, the difference between himself and Sidran comes down to this: Whereas Sidran pushed a political agenda, acting like a 10th legislator for the nine-member city council, Carr says the city attorney's job is simply to provide legal support. "I'm a litigator, not a legislator," Carr told The Stranger in a recent interview. When we pointed out that he was elected based on the liberal values he stressed on the campaign trail, Carr defended himself, citing an ordinance he pushed against up-skirt photography and another fining johns and diverting the money to a sex-industry victims' fund.

Well, which is it, Tom? Do you pick and choose when to be a legislator (on no-brainers like busting voyeurs and johns), while retreating to the role of litigator when you'd otherwise have to challenge Sidran's controversial work?

Even if Carr has lived up to his promise to be a litigator, not a legislator, that philosophy doesn't preclude prolonging the Sidran legacy. This very week, Carr's office is in the Washington State Supreme Court, litigating on the wrong side of a civil rights issue.

Carr claims his argument against the court of appeals decision overturning the city's poster ban is purely legal: As a matter of principle, "I don't like the pole-postering ordinance," Carr insists. But despite his supposed ideological opposition, Carr says he decided to appeal the ruling because he feels he would be "taking [the issue] out of the city council's hands" if he allowed the decision to stand. "If there were five votes on the council to repeal the pole-postering ban, it would have happened," he says. (The council did place restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which signs can be posted, but there's some disagreement between Carr and the council on whether those restrictions are temporary, as Carr claims, or permanent.)

From a policy standpoint, Carr says he objects to the decision because he feels it would allow postering on any public property, not just signs and poles. In its decision, the appeals court ruled that because poles have historically been used for postering, they constitute a "traditional public forum." Following that logic, Carr argues, people could start putting posters on monorail pillars or the side of city hall; if the city doesn't work hard enough to take them down, a "tradition" of postering could inadvertently be established. "We'll be in a situation where we've got to make sure that speech is suppressed [by tearing down signs] in order to prevent something from becoming a traditional public forum," Carr told us, trying to scare us with an appeal to The Stranger's free-speech sympathies. Nice try, Tom, but your reasoning misses the mark. It's like trying to scare suffragettes by denying them the vote now because it would mean their daughters would get the vote in the future.

Here's one alternative Carr doesn't mention: The city could simply leave the posters where they are, letting the free market decide how many signs go up and where. That's more or less what Seattle has been doing for the last 10 months, and the city hasn't succumbed to urban blight, despite Carr's own allegation--cited in the city attorney's appeal--that postering "substantially contributes to visual blight and clutter and harms the urban aesthetic." Visual blight? These are city streets, not suburban cul-de-sacs.

Carr wasn't eager to discuss another aspect of the city's argument against overturning the ban, though it makes up the bulk of his own attorneys' appeal. Perhaps that's because it's so laugh-out-loud ridiculous. In its appeal, Carr's office argues that allowing posters on poles will lead to a spike in utility worker accidents, a rash of fires by arsonists who set the poles ablaze, and an increase in collisions by drivers who get distracted by posters on traffic signs. In its ruling, the appeals court made light of this patently absurd conclusion, noting that it was "difficult to imagine how such a poster would be more distracting to drivers than the multitude of business signs, billboards, and flashing neon advertisements that invariably surround the poles."

If Carr wins and the ban is declared constitutional, the current council isn't likely to reinstate the poster ban. But a victory by Carr and his attorneys could spell the demise of an important avenue for free speech in Seattle, by paving the way for a future council to do exactly that.

To Carr's credit, his office is not appealing the December 2002 state supreme court ruling that put the city's impound ordinance in jeopardy. However, this is a situation where Carr, who called the impound ordinance "unfair," should stand up for his beliefs and do some legislating.

The impound ordinance, passed at Sidran's behest in 1999, allows Seattle Police Department officers to impound cars that are driven by someone whose license has been suspended for any reason, including unpaid parking tickets--a violation known as DWLS-3. Critics point out that the ordinance disproportionately affects low-income drivers, who are not only more likely to have their licenses suspended because they're unable to pay their fines, but are also less able to afford the fees to get their cars back.

The city attorney promised that if the council moved to repeal the ordinance, he wouldn't threaten council members with deceptive rhetoric about throwing people in jail, as Sidran did in 2000 ["Attempt to Reform Sidran's Impound Ordinance Rides on Elusive Council Member Wills," Allie Hollie Gottlieb, June 15, 2000].

Carr's promise is encouraging, because--for the record--judges don't jail people for driving without a license when the issue is unpaid tickets. Unfortunately, he's not pushing for a repeal. He should. Taking away someone's car for driving with a suspended license isn't logical. The only way to have the DWLS-3 dismissed, under the current scenario, is by having your car impounded. This means, according to Public Defender Lisa Daugaard, that "the city is dismissing the DWLS-3 charge regardless of whether the person is [even trying to get] their license back." And more important: Impounding cars and jailing drivers aren't the only options. A more effective way to solve the problem is the way County Prosecutor Norm Maleng does it at King County: getting offenders into re-licensing programs.

josh@thestranger.com

barnett@thestranger.com

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