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Who is the mayor supposed to tell when she leaves town? Seattle shooting raises question

Mayor Jenny Durkan was on a business trip to D.C. during the January shooting. Lisa Herbold, then the council president, says notification should have been clearer.

Mayor Jenny Durkan, shown at primary election night party when she was a candidate for the office, Aug. 1, 2017 in Seattle.(Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Mayor Jenny Durkan was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., during last month’s fatal shooting in downtown Seattle — something the city council president at the time said she was initially unaware of because she had not received formal notification from the mayor. 

The fact that there was no notification, said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who was acting as president of the Seattle City Council when the incident occurred, points to a lack of clear protocol between the two branches of city government for when and how the mayor should notify the council that she's leaving town and designate the council president as mayor pro tem. 

“It has come to my attention that administrative procedures are not being executed to fulfill the Seattle City Charter” as it relates to mayoral absences, Herbold wrote in a letter to the mayor’s office in the days after the shooting. 

In addition to her letter, Herbold offered a draft protocol for the council and mayor, which says the mayor must notify the council president, city attorney, city clerk, director of the Office of Emergency Management, police chief and fire chief at least two weeks in advance “or as soon as practicable” of the date and time of her absence.

In a statement, Durkan’s office countered that, while she was out of the city, she was not “absent” from her role as mayor. Technology and a succession structure within the mayor’s office are such that the mayor’s ability to do her job is not weakened by her being on another coast and, therefore, formal notification was not required in this instance, Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas said.

“Since the inception of the 1896 charter when mayors traveled via horse and buggy and communicated via telegraph, technology and advances such as airplanes, cellphones, cars, and the internet (even on airplanes) allow the mayor to be fully accessible in almost any circumstance and readily available to respond to an emergency,” Formas said.

The city’s charter dictates that “in case of the absence of the mayor from the city,” the president of the city council acts as mayor. The rule is a stopgap in case of a large-scale emergency, such as an earthquake or terrorist attack, that may require a declaration of a state of emergency or other immediate executive action.

The charter is not explicit about how or even if the mayor should inform the council president that she’s out of the city, however. This is at the root of the disagreement around whether there are, in fact, any “administrative procedures” for determining when a mayor must declare herself technically “absent.”

Formas, the mayor's chief of staff, provided Crosscut with a detailed timeline of the mayor’s actions during the shooting that shows the mayor communicating extensively with members of city government. 

“The night of the shooting, Mayor Durkan was far from absent — rather coordinating updates with her team, (Police) Chief Best and (Fire) Chief Scoggins,” Formas said.

In addition to monitoring the shooting incident, Durkan was also “closely monitoring” two other violent incidents and the coronavirus threat unfolding that week.

For her part, Herbold said the response to the downtown shooting was not impacted by Durkan’s lack of notification. “I don’t think anything like that at all,” Herbold told Crosscut, “but there’s the potential.”

“There are times when there need to be decisions made and consultations with people who can make decisions,” Herbold added. “And when she’s not in that position I think it’s important [to send notice]. It’s identified as an obligation.”

Herbold was in the the president position while Council President Lorena González is on parenting leave. 

Formas said the mayor's office “will continue to follow our protocol on already notifying council when the mayor is on personal travel or not accessible (such as her surgery) — both times when she may not be as accessible for any situation.” 

In her more than two-year tenure, Durkan has sent formal notification 11 times, according to records provided to Crosscut through a public records request. Among the occasions: when she had surgery to remove a melanoma from her leg.

Other occasions, including her recent trip to DC and a 2018 trip to the Texas border, did not elicit formal notice.  

Former Mayor Ed Murray sent 23 notices in his first year-and-a-half in office, according to records obtained by Crosscut in 2015 through a document request. 

Former Mayor Mike McGinn told Crosscut, “It was my understanding that we were required to send such a notice.” He said that would not necessarily apply to a trip to Bellevue, but leaving the state would trigger the process. McGinn said his understanding was based on "pre-existing practice" and what he believed that charter "implied" was necessary.

Modern communication has made the process of designating an acting mayor less important than it once was. It’s unlikely that a council president would make any executive decisions — like, for example, fire the police chief, as Bertha Knight Landes did in 1924 when then Seattle Mayor Edwin Brown had taken a train to New York.

“With all of the modern communications methods, it feels archaic, but those are the rules, and we followed them,” McGinn said.

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