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Seattle mayor vs. city attorney: ‘Who’s really in charge?’

While he won't call it an outright power grab, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (right) says he and City Attorney Pete Holmes have a fundamental disagreement about who's really in charge. (AP Photos)

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn won’t call the ongoing dispute with City Attorney Pete Holmes a power grab, but he does say Holmes has a vastly different opinion of his power as the battle over a Department of Justice ordered policing plan plays out in public.

Simmering tensions came to a head earlier this week when McGinn accused Holmes of violating ethical standards and attorney-client privilege by sharing confidential documents with the monitor in charge of overseeing police reforms.

“The rules of professional conduct are very clear that an attorney is not supposed to share confidential communications with opposing parties. It’s very straightforward,” McGinn said in an interview Thursday with KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank.

McGinn and SPD Chief John Diaz have clashed repeatedly with Holmes over police reforms and a settlement agreement with the DOJ after the feds determined Seattle police have a pattern of using excessive force.

McGinn says his office has a fundamental disagreement over Holmes’ role. The mayor’s office believes Holmes represents city hall, while Holmes argues he represents the city as a whole and can act independently in any matter regarding the DOJ settlement.

The final straw came this week when the mayor said Holmes edited a proposed plan prepared by Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. In an email from the mayor’s office to Holmes, obtained by KIRO Radio’s Brandi Kruse, the mayor’s office alleged Holmes removed the words “attorney-client privileged” from the document and sent it to monitor Merrick Bobb as an “alternate statement of the framework for setting specific goals and requirements for the Plan.”

“It appears that you are actively undercutting your client’s objectives in this matter,” the mayor’s office wrote in the email.

“Pete sent a letter to Bobb essentially saying, ‘You don’t need to talk to the chief, you can talk to me and instead of using his proposal here’s my proposal,’ including some draft documents that were confidential documents supplied to him,” McGinn told Ross and Burbank.

“How is that in the best interest of the city to have the attorney saying, ‘Don’t talk to the chief talk to me?'”

McGinn said that if Holmes wants to be an activist taking a role in public policy making, he should step aside from DOJ dealings and let another attorney represent the city.

“He could institute an ethical screen, assign us an attorney who we could talk to in confidence and have us represent our interests as we proceed and he could then be an advocate speaking his mind on these issue and be a watchdog if that’s what he wants to do,” he said.

Holmes has no intention of doing that. In a statement released Wednesday by his office, he refused the mayor’s request.

City Attorney Pete Holmes will not screen himself from representing the City in this case. The City Charter gives the City Attorney supervisory control of all litigation and, although the City has entered a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, this remains a pending lawsuit under the supervision of a federal judge. Mr. Holmes has violated no client confidences or breached any ethical obligations to his client, the City of Seattle.

So why is it coming to a head now? McGinn said he was raising the issue so the public “can understand what’s really going on.”

“It’s a tough question, who’s really in charge?” he said.

McGinn said he’ll keep pressing until someone figures that out.

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