A couple hours before the Seattle City Council's public safety committee convened to discuss a bill requiring the City Attorney's Office (CAO) to publish transparency reports more regularly than it currently does, incoming City Attorney Ann Davison announced her opposition to the legislation in a somewhat bizarre email that includes a cascade of non sequiturs, thinly supported accusations of sexism, and two false statements. The email sets the tone for her council relations going forward, and it's a tone you might expect from someone who decided to become a Republican during the Trump administration.
The bill, sponsored by City Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Andrew Lewis, would require the law department to issue quarterly reports on stuff the office already publishes annually; i.e., metrics showing the number and kind of cases charged, tried, convicted, declined, or diverted to pre-arrest or pre-trial programs.
The bill also requires the department to give the council a heads up three months before it makes any changes to LEAD (the city's lauded pre-booking diversion program), and to publish quarterly reports on the program. Right now the CAO only voluntarily publishes a report on the program annually.
Lewis justified the new reporting requirements by arguing that the council raised the agency's budget by $38 million this year—a 9% increase from last year's budget, and the "largest budget the City Attorney's Office has ever seen." Given that level of investment, he said it was in the city's interest to track progress. González underlined the fact that the ordinance "doesn’t impinge or otherwise modify any prosecutorial discretion" maintained by the incoming City Attorney.
At the meeting, Councilmember Alex Pedersen expressed discomfort with the idea of codifying these reporting requirements into the city's municipal code rather than simply asking for them politely, and then asked the committee to delay the bill. After Lewis and council staff explained that the city's municipal code already outlined certain reporting requirements for the CAO and for several other city agencies, Pedersen's motion failed and the committee passed the bill along for consideration at the full council meeting on Monday.
In an email sent to all council members a couple hours before the meeting began, Davison expressed her opposition to the bill, and threw a couple bombs at the council while she was at it.
She led her email by reminding the woman-majority council that her coming tenure will "break one of the last major glass ceilings in Seattle politics." She then veered into an anecdote about her meeting with the owner of Seven Stars Pepper, who complained about crime outside her restaurant. Davison included a link to a recent Seattle Times op-ed blaming city and county politicians for the existence of "an open-air drug market preventing customers from entering her restaurant," attached photos of her meeting with the owner and of people standing outside the place, and argued that the council sought to "rush through" the transparency bill "rather than addressing the real public safety crises in Little Saigon" and in other parts of the city.
She then went on to claim that she hadn't been consulted on the bill, and asked the council to reflect on whether sexism had driven them to draft the legislation in the first place, given that "none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office."
To clarify any confusion about her values, she said she was "absolutely committed to greater transparency from the City Attorney’s Office and working to bolster the city’s diversion programs," and that she looked forward to sharing data "necessary to properly assess the performance of our municipal criminal justice system." She then pledged to work with the council "on the best way to formalize that."
Citing the "spirit of transparency," she concluded her email by rubbing the council's nose in a rundown of the law department's criminal case backlog, which now sits at just under 4,000 cases. For some reason, though, she failed to mention that the vast majority of that backlog built up during the pandemic. For one 15-month period, the Seattle Municipal Court held only six jury trials, and the Court is still operating at 75% pre-pandemic capacity. Moreover, about 25% of the office's assistant city prosecutors fled the place following the results of the August primary, which certainly didn't help the criminal division work through its cases.
According to CAO spokesman Dan Nolte, yesterday another prosecutor announced their intention to leave, and he added that the City can "expect that backlog number to only continue growing until the office is able to staff back up to full capacity and the court resumes pre-pandemic levels of operations." In the meantime, Nolte said, the agency has been interviewing "new candidates to staff up these vacant positions instead of waiting until January," and inviting Davison to those interviews as well.
Though Davison claimed no one consulted her on the bill, over the phone Lewis said he had shared the legislation with her on Thursday, Dec 2. The two then met in person on Tuesday Dec 7 and discussed "a variety of things, including this bill." At that meeting, Lewis said Davison expressed a desire for the council to delay the bill, but, as she hadn't recommended any "substantive changes" to it, he and the other members of the committee decided not to hold up the ordinance. They did, however, invite her or an assistant to join the committee to discuss those substantive changes, but she did not elect to do that. Nevertheless, Lewis said he "remains open to any substantive feedback."
Davison's claim that the bill imposes "restrictions on operations" is also false. As González said during the committee hearing, nothing in the bill impinges on Davison's discretion. Furthermore, Lewis argued that the council gave the department more money for its operations, including dedicated resources to facilitate better reporting, which was "something her predecessor didn't have the resources to do."
In an email, Nolte said the council added four new positions in next year's Criminal Division budget, which included a Management Systems Analyst that would work on data production, so he didn't see any reason why the office wouldn't be able to handle the proposed requirements.
As for the accusation that sexism drove the council to try to impose new transparency measures on the department, Lewis said he "started thinking about and drafting this before we knew who the new City Attorney would be," and wondered whether critics of the bill would raise the same objections if Nicole Thomas-Kennedy had won the election.
After pointing to the backlog and agreeing that the city does face a public safety crisis, Lewis said, "We should be discussing how she's going to deploy the $38 million budget to face those challenges. Instead we're debating transparency requirements, which seems like a strange discussion to be having."
Don Stark, a consultant on Davison's transition team, said she could not respond for comment as she was on a plane to Texas to visit an ill family member.