Seattle City Attorney-elect slams council’s ‘rushed’ effort to change diversion rules

Dec 10, 2021, 2:30 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2021, 6:45 am
Seattle City Attorney candidate Ann Davison...
Seattle City Attorney-elect Ann Davison. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

Seattle City Attorney-elect Ann Davison is accusing the city council of taking unprecedented action to change the rules of her soon-to-be office before she takes the oath.

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On Thursday, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee passed a proposed ordinance from Council President Lorena Gonzalez and Councilmember Andrew Lewis that would change Seattle’s Municipal Code to require the City Attorney’s Office to provide 90 days notice to the council before making any changes to the city’s existing diversion programs, or eliminating them altogether. It also would require the office to deliver quarterly reports to the council on the effectiveness of diversion programs.

Prior to the committee vote, Davison sent a letter to the council criticizing the move.

“Rather than addressing the real public safety crises in Little Saigon, Aurora Avenue N., Ballard, the Downtown commercial core, South Seattle, or dozens of other neighborhoods across our city, today’s hearing seeks to rush through Council bill 120247, introduced on Monday, that relates to the operation and reporting of the City Attorney’s Office. I have not been consulted on this bill,” Davison wrote in the letter.

She went on to point out that it was an unprecedented move by the city council, and suggests a double standard.

“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, 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,” Davison wrote. “Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor. I encourage my esteemed colleagues on City Council to question whether they are enforcing a double standard and what message that sends our daughters who one day may seek elected office.”

Ahead of the committee vote, Gonzalez stressed the legislation would not jeopardize any authority the city attorney had.

“Nothing in this ordinance impedes, impinges upon, or modifies any portion of the charter that vests prosecutorial discretion upon any city attorney elected to that position,” Gonzalez said.

“Rather, this ordinance simply acknowledges that the city council, as the charter mandated budget appropriation authority for the city of Seattle, has funded the existing diversion programs as they are currently structured. Should there be changes that the next city attorney would like to consider, propose, or effectuate, consistent with her charter responsibilities and duties, then I believe the council, as the budget appropriation authority, should be notified,” Gonzalez added.

Gonzalez also said a 90 day notice was reasonable, and that it is appropriate to ask one of their city departments to make sure that they are providing transparent and data driven reports to the city council.

“So that we can be well informed about the effectiveness of said programs, so that we have a clear understanding of whether the limited general fund dollars that are being allocated for this purpose are being utilized for the purpose intended,” Gonzalez said.

Davison, in her letter, had plenty to say about transparency.

“I am absolutely committed to greater transparency from the City Attorney’s Office and working to bolster the city’s diversion programs,” Davison wrote.

“Once I take office, I look forward to working together to make sure my office shares the data and metrics necessary to properly assess the performance of our municipal criminal justice system. And I commit to working together with you to come to terms on the best way to formalize that,” she wrote.

It was in the spirit of that transparency that Davison wrote in the letter she felt she must report to the council a discovery she made as part of her official transition work.

Davison had discovered the city attorney’s office currently has a backlog of 3,885 un-filed criminal cases going back over two years. The backlog of un-filed criminal cases includes, among others:

Count Offense Type
355 Assault
167 Unlawful Use of a Weapon
50 Vehicle Prowling
657 Domestic Violence
24 Domestic Violence – Child Abuse
7 Domestic Violence – Elder Abuse
90 Domestic Violence – Non-Int. Partner
38 Stalking with Sexual Motivation
8 Cruelty to Animals
59 Malicious Harassment or Menacing
252 Property Destruction
21 Reckless Burning
639 Theft

“Each one of these un-filed cases involves a real victim waiting for justice. For my part, I plan to re-center the victims in our city’s public safety conversation. I look forward to City Council’s partnership and attention to this dire backlog of cases. I hope we can work together to give the City Attorney’s Office the resources to stand up for the victims of domestic violence and assault once again,” Davison wrote in the closing of her letter.

In the recently passed budget, the city council approved the largest-ever budget for the city attorney’s office, representing a 9% increase over the prior budget.

The City Attorney’s Office told KIRO Radio that the backlog is not news, but rather something the office has been open about, including in outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes’ concession statement in August, when he lost the primary and stated that regardless of who took the office in 2022, they would face a “truly daunting set of challenges,” not the least of which was the “thousands-deep criminal case backlog wrought by the pandemic closure of the court.”

“There was a 15-month span during the pandemic when Seattle Municipal Court held a total of 6 jury trials, which backed things up quite significantly. And SMC is still operating at 75% pre-pandemic capacity. Since the August Primary, moreover, 25% of our Assistant City Prosecutor positions have become vacant as people departed for jobs elsewhere. Another prosecutor just announced their intention to leave yesterday, so you 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,” said Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for Holmes’ office.

“We’ve been interviewing new candidates to staff up these vacant positions instead of waiting until January,” Nolte added.

As far as the city council ordinance, it is reportedly a watered down version of what the council president had called for last month when, as reported by Publicola, Gonzalez said she would propose legislation to require the city attorney to send some misdemeanor cases to diversion programs instead of filing charges.

Davison won the city attorney’s post in November, running on a platform of holding people accountable for “quality of life” crimes such as property damage, shoplifting, and others that are typically diverted under the current administration. Many believe the fact that Davison beat out self-proclaimed abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy by 3 percentage points – or about 10,000 votes — shows a strong appetite among Seattle voters for a tougher-on-crime approach than seen with Holmes and the current city council.

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Seattle City Attorney-elect slams council’s ‘rushed’ effort to change diversion rules