Ahead of a hearing tomorrow on whether to certify a recall petition against Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the Seattle City Council decided in a 7-1 vote to pass an ordinance allowing the city to cover the costs of Sawant's defense. Sawant recused herself voluntarily from today's special meeting and vote because she had a financial interest in its outcome.
The vote in the council's special meeting today was meant to be apolitical. Council President Lorena Gonzalez stressed that a King County Superior Court judge — not the council — would decide on the merits of the recall petition.
However, multiple council members said they'd received an onslaught of emails from constituents on both sides of the issue, and the council debated about whether to debate the merits of the recall petition, or simply to follow precedent and approve the legal defense funding.
It's not out of the ordinary for the city to defend its elected officials. State law requires electeds seeking a city-funded recall defense to first request that defense. The council then votes on whether to approve the request, and the City Attorney's Office indicates whether it is willing and able to provide the defense. Sawant requested the defense, City Attorney Pete Holmes gave his approval, and now the council has also approved.
In 2011, the city paid former Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin's legal bills in the recall campaign against him. He won that fight. Currently, only Sawant and Mayor Jenny Durkan face recalls, though another recall petition against Councilmember Lisa Herbold is gaining momentum.
District 3 resident Ernie Lou leads the effort to recall Sawant, and a bunch of anonymous $25 donors with buy-in from Sawant's opponents fund the campaign. In the recall petition, Lou argues Sawant endangered city workers when she allowed protesters into City Hall after hours back in June, and said she "led a protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan's private residence."
Multiple council members spoke about Conlin's case as "legal precedent" for supporting Sawant today.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis stood firm in his vote. He said the City Attorney's Office traditionally represents the City Council, and he called picking and choosing who gets legal representation and who doesn't "a slippery slope."
Additionally, Lewis's vote upheld "the principle that we have legal representation if we are facing recall efforts," he said.
"We have a process of picking our elected representatives and that's elections, not recalls," Lewis added. "If you don't like what your elected representative is doing you can vote against them in the next election."
Council members generally spoke in favor of upholding the standard of granting a council colleague legal representation, but Councilmember Debora Juarez believed the council should debate whether or not Sawant was acting in her official capacity in the complaints contained within the recall petition.
But whether or not she was acting in her official capacity didn't need to be determined in the case of voting to fund legal fees against a recall, according to Washington state law and the legal advice Gonzalez had received, Gonzalez said. Plus, the City Attorney's Office had already indicated that it was willing to support Sawant.
"You've made an insinuation that I've cherry-picked sections of the law in front of the council, and I want to say that is not the case," Gonzalez told Juarez.
The two went back and forth a few more times, with Gonzalez firmly clarifying things and Juarez still clinging to the idea that the council should debate Sawant's actions. Finally, Juarez said the decision on the petition was up to the courts, and that she would be voting no. Then she voted no.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen mentioned all the emails his constituents sent him on the matter. "I realize it's not a popular position in my district, and my constituents will be asking me for a long time, 'How can you support Sawant?'" Pedersen said. "But what I'm actually supporting is the facts as I know them, the city attorney's position, and a crystal clear precedent." Pedersen then voted yes.
If the Court certifies the petition tomorrow, then the Recall Sawant campaign has until early 2021 to collect around 10,000 District 3 signatures, or “25% of the total number of votes cast (42,956) in the November 5, 2019 general election for City of Seattle Council Position #3." Socialist Alternative plans to host a pro-Sawant rally outside the courthouse tomorrow.