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Seattle and the DOJ: political train wreck ahead

Mike McGinn addressing a Town Hall meeting at Nathan Hale High School in 2011 Credit: Joe Mabel

Seattle is heading for one of its trademark political train wrecks. Possibly Pauline can be snatched from the tracks of a hurtling locomotive (a lengthy legal battle over police with the Department of Justice) in the next two weeks. But for now, we seem to be emulating Congress with our own brand of high-stakes brinksmanship.

The blame-game got under way in earnest this week when a confidential letter from City Attorney Pete Holmes, skewering Mayor Mike McGinn for his foot-dragging tactics on the issue, made its way to Seattle Times reporters. City Council members quickly jumped in, pinning the tail on the stubborn-donkey mayor.

Well, maybe. Certainly the mayor is playing a lonely game here, stalling on negotiations with the DOJ, stiff-arming other parts of the city family such as the city attorney and the city council. He seems an odd-bedfellow friend of the cops, who also don't like the medicine the DOJ is proposing: years of expensive court-monitored reforms. The mayor's normal allies, minorities and groups like the ACLU, are also angry at being excluded from negotiations and the mayor's seeming preference for the cops' point of view.

Not that McGinn doesn't enjoy being lonely, as he was during his ultimately futile opposition to the deep-bore tunnel. Moreover, he could have some aces up his sleeve. One would be — having sided with the police as long as he has and thereby maybe bringing them along to accept the reforms — he forges a courthouse-steps agreement on the basic changes being advocated for the use of force by police when fighting crime. Another would be that a new attorney general under Obama 2 or Romney 1 would relax the legal pressure and settle out of court in a way more favorable to Seattle's budget and bruised local feelings.

Another complicating factor is that it takes two (or four) to tango in this way, and that McGinn's opponents have also been more eager to fight than to smoke peace pipes. In short, we have a kind of perfect storm of political ambition, ego, stubbornness, and defensiveness over mistakes by many parties, most definitely including the rookie mayor. Also, an absence of people who could resolve the issue.

Let me list the dramatis personae. You can start with the three members of the City Council committee who were supposed to work with the mayor in getting a unified response to the DOJ, which filed its sweepingly critical report eight months ago. Those three, who ultimately broke off cooperating with the uncooperative mayor, are Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Clark — all of whom are pretty openly toying with running against McGinn in 2013. The City Council as a whole enjoys isolating the mayor in this way, creating more of a vacuum for the current regime of government-by-council.

Next is the city attorney, Pete Holmes, also a rookie at the job and a man with visible chips on his shoulder, particularly when it comes to police issues and the mayor. Holmes defied McGinn on tunnel issues, and McGinn, once offended in this way, rarely forgives. He's required by city charter to use the city attorney in "all litigation," but McGinn has pretty much been his own attorney (he is a litigation specialist) and used his staff attorney. (There's another political firecracker that would go off if the DOJ goes ahead and files its lawsuit: Who defends the city?) It's hard to see how McGinn and Holmes can really work together after Holmes wrote his scathing letter, with copies to the abovementioned three councilmembers.

There's more. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who is another oft-mentioned mayoral possibility and has years of frustrating wrestling with the Seattle Police Department over reforms, is another forceful and stubborn player on this stage. By some inside accounts, the DOJ report suffers from serious flaws in analysis and naive prescriptions. Durkan and the D.C. feds in the DOJ were urged to find ways to identify the major problems and work with the city on reasonable solutions. This never really happened. A mediator was appointed, but one with little substantive experience in police work: again, no progress. An effort was made to agree on a monitor, who would do early mediation: not found.

And so now, everyone has his or her back up high, hairs bristling with electricity. The worst outcome, a full-bore, wash-all-the-laundry-in-public lawsuit, is likely to be filed in two weeks. With tempers even more inflamed, the court will impose new regulations, benchmarks, and a professional (high-priced) monitor to report to the court on progress, for many years. (It's possible, of course, that the DOJ could lose. But the community would be so outraged by all the evidence of police laxity and worse that it would force the kind of changes DOJ is pushing for.)

Nor will the community have much say, since it is now a legal, not a political matter. So the very groups from minority and civil-liberties communities who forced the DOJ intervention will join the large angry chorus.

But if the blame is widely shared, I do not mean to imply that Mayor McGinn is just another offender. He is the chief culprit, from what I can tell at this murky point in the story. He is suspicious of too many people, too ready to cast dissenters as thorns and rivals rather than as important strategic advisers. McGinn still has not put seasoned political operatives at top levels in his staff. His decision-making is said to be more "in the moment" than disciplined. His behavior on this critical issue remains baffling to nearly everyone, including the media (now mostly turned against McGinn). So we are left to speculate that it's part of getting reelected, sheer peevishness, or what?

It's not all that unusual for big political ambitions and egos to lock up in this fashion. That was certainly the case in the Greg Nickels administration (2001-09), eager to reclaim a kind of imperial mayoralty from the department heads and the council. But what would normally happen is that seasoned staffers, with good friendships in the opposing camps, would go out for a beer, float some solutions, and then go back and sell the back-downs to the bosses. That was the age of people like budget director Dwight Dively (now with King County) or Diana Gale or Virginia Anderson — shrewd solutionists in the crunch.

There are fewer of these people around. Mayor Nickels undermined them with his command-and-control style. Mayor McGinn pushed too many of these people out, looking for more ideological coherence. And the Boomer retirement phase is taking away from goverment many of the 1960s idealists who have given Seattle government such stability and smarts (and political correctness).

Add all these factors up, and you've got a speeding locomotive. Yow!



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