Saturday, October 17, 2009

From the People Who Brought You Mardi Gras

2001 Seattle. Four nights. 9,000 young people. Alcohol. Music. Gunfire. Three riots. Cars overturned. Seventy-two (72) people treated at hospitals. One person dead. Another critically injured. For the second straight year of Mardi Gras rioting, nightlife as Seattle knew it was out of control.

These events occurred 11 months before I took the oath of office as your City Attorney. Following the riots, sensible people asked how a small segment of Seattle’s bar industry had come to gain so much control. The Seattle Times editorialized, “This city has a political policy of tolerating things it shouldn’t. Whether it is sentimentality or a fear of being accused of provocation, Seattle has a history of allowing small illegalities to grow into big problems…The fault lies with… tolerance of a culture that is permissive to the point of recklessness.”

Throughout the 2001 campaign, candidates for Seattle’s mayor, city council and city attorney were asked what they would do to crack down on alcohol-fused violence so that people could enjoy nightlife safely. Coming into office less than a year after the deadly Mardi Gras riots, we newly elected officials sought partnerships with the nightclub industry. But the industry wasn’t interested.

Working with the nationwide organization “The Responsible Hospitality Institute,” we learned that having the police department be the only contact with nightclubs was ineffective; police do not have the time or the expertise to deal with the health, fire or building codes. Headlines from around the country showed unenforced codes led to scores of deaths. In those cities, as in Seattle post-Mardi Gras, citizens demanded to know how this could happen. But everyone knows that when industries are unregulated, people get hurt. We formed a Joint Assessment Team, assembling inspectors to look at these codes, and other systemic and structural issues. Most importantly, we invited all 85 nightclubs in the West Precinct, an area from Magnolia, Queen Anne, Downtown, to Pioneer Square to sit down and work with us to find a better way. We wanted to partner with the clubs and explain what we were trying to accomplish. Only 15 clubs participated.

In 2005, the JAT inspected all 85 clubs over 14 nights. 77 clubs had a total of 203 fire code violations. 58 of the 203 violations involved emergency exits – some chained or blocked. And while club owners complained, the violations and the violence continued.

2005 Seattle. A man stabbed inside Larry’s in Pioneer Square is thrown into the street, by employees, to be rescued by a passerby. 2006 Seattle. Two men fired into a crowed hallway at Mr. Lucky's on Queen Anne, wounding three. 2007 Seattle. Shootings at Tabella, a Belltown club, narrowly miss condo residents. Nightclub-related violence had reached an all time high. 911 calls to nightclubs were taxing residents in more ways than money: from January 2006 to April 2007, the J&M CafĂ© had 50 police incident reports, followed by Venom with 37 and Tabella with 35.

Following a nightclub brawl in July 2007, The Seattle Times wrote, “Last weekend, 11 Seattle police officers and three police supervisors spent more than half an hour outside Aristocrats nightclub in Sodo, where a large crowd gathered. Shots were fired. Ten shell casings were found. No one was injured.” That time. But the need for a new approach was necessary so that we could keep Seattle safe, both Seattle’s club attendees and club neighbors.

Three common denominators fuel problems in nightclubs: service to minors, over-serving alcohol, and guns in clubs. In Washington, each of these is a crime. Every bartender and alcohol server in the State of Washington is required to take classes outlining the seriousness of these crimes, and class participants are notified that they are personally liable – with jail and 5-figure fines – if they break the law. For bar managers and owners, the liability, and the responsibility, is much higher.

To check the problems, we engaged Operation Sobering Thought, a sting on 15 problem-plagued clubs. Teenagers got into 14 of the 15 clubs. Guns got in to two clubs. Drunk patrons were served more alcohol in 4 clubs. 27 people were arrested; 17 entered plea agreements. As Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark noted, “Overservice, serving a minor, and allowing a gun through the door are serious, life-threatening problems. It’s disappointing that the sting was so successful.”

Unregulated, unchecked clubs become a problem when the profit motive overcomes the responsibility to operate lawfully. When club owners and managers knowingly and willfully violate our laws, they put our young people at risk. The toll from deaths and injuries in the past 8 years is too high to ignore. But they also put every Seattle citizen at risk when your police department is used to clear out nightclubs, instead of responding to your burglary, assault or domestic violence calls.

Lobbyists for the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association would have you believe that clubs are closing because of my actions to protect our citizens. Nightclub owners have complained that “many in the industry are going out of business because of Tom Carr.” In fact, sales are up 17% -- in a recession . In 2009, there were 250 new liquor license applications – in the East Precinct (east of I-5, between the Ship Canal and I-90) alone. The City objected to only three of them. There are more than 1200 liquor licenses in the City of Seattle. Just one or two percent are problematic. If nightclubs are losing business, it’s not because I am enforcing the law, it is because of vigorous and healthy competition.

Enforcing the law will not kill Seattle’s nightlife. Irresponsible club owners who flagrantly violate our laws will kill Seattle’s nightlife. My job is keeping you safe, and that keeps the music playing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Open Government

If we are truly going to have open government we need to find an effective way to give citizens access to e-mail. For the last two years or so, I have been working on a new system of saving and indexing City of Seattle e-mails. Under our current system, each employee is required to save e-mails that are substantive. If he or she does not do so, they are deleted from the system after six weeks. In the early days of e-mail, this was fine, because there weren't too many and it was easy to separate the substantive from the joke of the day. Now, so much business is conducted through e-mail that we need a better system. Some years ago, I began advocating for a comprehensive e-mail archiving system that would store and index city e-mails. I took the lead for this, because court rules surrounding discovery have moved toward broader access to electronic discovery. As the city's lawyer, it is important to me that we be able to find and produce documents that as required by court rules. I have, however, never lost sight of the fact that this new system will provide easier and more extensive access to the city's e-mails. While important, an e-mail archiving system is not the kind of thing that gets the budget writers excited, particularly in a down economy. Nevertheless, I am proud that the Mayor and Council agreed to spend nearly $1 million on a project to install such a system citywide. The City Council even made it the centerpiece of their open government initiative. After extensive work and testing, the system will begin installation next month. My department will be one of the first to install it. While it has not recieved a lot of notice, the e-mail archiving tool will continue Seattle's leadership in open government.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Something's Fishy

Despite the fact that I have helped bring down the Seattle daily jail population from a daily average of 409 in 2001 to just 254 in 2008, I recently faced a claim that the King County jail is overcrowded because I prosecute people who should be set loose. My opponent most recently cited a case where a defendant was given a 31-day jail sentence after stealing a can of tuna, affecting outrage over such a strong sentence for stealing food. However, there is a critical back story.

In the tuna case, the defendant had a mile-long rap sheet. By the time the individual – let’s call him Charlie (as in Charlie Tuna) – was nabbed shoplifting the tuna, local taxpayers had paid tens of thousands of dollars in arrest, court, and jail costs for his fifty, (that's right 50), Seattle Municipal Court convictions, 18 misdemeanor convictions in other jurisdictions, and 6 felony convictions. Further, Charlie had at least 40 other arrests that did not lead to convictions. Unless he was the worst criminal of all time, he also probably committed crimes without being caught. To put it mildly, Charlie was a problem for our community.

So, by the time he was sentenced in 2004 for his 50th misdemeanor conviction, Charlie had racked up at least 114 criminal arrests and convictions. In Seattle, as in most communities, our citizens do not have endless patience for people like Charlie. Store owners are rightfully infuriated when the offender comes back to offend and re-offend, and demand to know why people like Charlie keep “getting off.” At the same time, the cost borne by taxpayers for repeat offenders is enormous. At times, it is more effective to put people in jail. This was one of those times.

Charlie was participating in both the Seattle Mental Health Court and the King County Drug Court at the time he was sentenced. By all accounts jail, treatment and monitoring worked to help Charlie. Between 2004 and 2008, Charlie was not caught committing any crimes. In 2009 he was caught stealing a textbook and Charlie was sent to Community Court – an option not available in his earlier criminal career. I personally handled Charlie’s Community Court case, and am very pleased that Charlie is now receiving the services he needs while being held accountable for his crimes.

We cannot ignore crime. Like a broken window in a vacant building, low-level problems become major problems if we ignore them. I look at the Charlies of our community and have found a way to protect our community, our homes, our businesses and our families by giving defendants second chances and a way to atone, and learn how to be a positive part of our community.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank you Yankee Stadium

The passing of the old Yankee Stadium feels a little like the loss of an old friend. Living here in Seattle, I did not even have the opportunity to attend the wake, although I am sure that I could not have afforded it anyway. My memories of Yankee Stadium go back a long way. I discovered baseball in 1964, at the age of seven. That year, the Yankees made what was then their annual trip to the World Series. I watched some of the games on our family’s tiny black and white television and was hooked. Sadly, it would be 12 years before they played in October again.

Our neighborhood was typical of the East Bronx. Our building of over 200 families was populated almost entirely with the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants. People were living the American dream, which of course involved baseball. Our ball field was St. Peter’s playground or among the parked cars on Tratman Avenue. We played stickball and other baseball derivatives called “punch” or “slap” with a small pink rubber ball, known as a “spaldeen.”

In Seattle, one is almost overwhelmed by the lush green. Not so, in the Bronx. It’s not as if we did not have grass on our block. Bible’s Funeral Home had a lovely lawn, where occasionally we would sneak for a game of tackle football. Yet, it is fair to say that grass and trees were not really an everyday part of our lives.

In 1967, my scout leader took our troop to Yankee Stadium. We took the Number 6 train to 125th street in Manhattan and changed for the number 4, Lexington Avenue Express northbound. We got an all too brief glimpse of the Stadium as the train emerged from the tunnel and rushed by the gap between the bleachers and the right field stands. The 161st street subway station was behind the center field bleachers. The main entry to the ballpark was behind home plate. To enter the stadium, you had to walk all the way around the outside. At the time, the exterior was painted a utilitarian white. The features that appear in pictures from the early days were obscured through corporate efficiency that ruled the Yankees in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our seats that day were in the upper deck on the third base side, which was reached by a series of ramps that smelled damp with a tinge of old peanuts and hot dogs. The ramps led to a small tunnel through which bright light seemed to explode. The tunnel opened onto the greenest place any of us had ever seen. Even now over 40 years later, it seems like yesterday. I can almost smell the stale cigar smoke that seemed to be everywhere in the days long before anyone thought of banning smoking at a ball park. Baseball at Yankee Stadium was pure joy.

As I grew older, I would regularly attend games. A general admission seat was $1.50 and a subway token cost 35 cents. General admission seats were anywhere behind the pillars – before the 1976 renovation, the stadium roof was supported by pillars that gave some interesting views. If you got there early enough you could position yourself between two pillars and get a completely unobstructed view. When I turned 14, I signed on as a vendor and got to see games for free and make a little money at the same time. I was never as happy as when I got to go to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

Time passes. Thurman died and even young Murcer, who replaced Mickey, retired and has sadly passed. Lou came here. Over the years, my allegiance shifted. It became harder to love the Yankees from afar, when we had a local team that was fun to watch.

My family regularly attends games at the amazing Safeco Field. My boys are growing watching Jose, Felix and the magical Ichiro. We keep score and talk about the game as fathers and sons should. When my sixteen year old perplexes me, we can always go outside and play catch. Our conversations drift, but mostly involve baseball.

I see a lot of baseball these days. Coaching one son’s team and watching the other’s high school, summer and fall teams, I probably see nearly 100 games a year. When my kids allow, I even get to sit in my Mariner’s seats on occasion. I will miss Yankee Stadium, because it gave me a love that has lasted over 40 years. My family shares this love and it provides us a neutral zone of common ground as we pass through our children’s adolescent years. It may be the house that Ruth built, but to me it was an urban oasis, filled with magic that began a lifelong love.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Open Government for All

On Monday, August 31, 2009, the Public Records Act Exemptions Accountability Committee (less formally known as the "Sunshine Committee") will consider my recommendation to eliminate the state legislature's exemption from one of our state's two open government laws. The provision keeps private documents at the state legislature that would be and are available to the public at any other level of government in our state. A little background is helpful.

The state legislature has exempted itself from both of the state's open government laws. As enacted by initiative in 1972, the Public Records Act applied to the state legislature. In 1995, the legislature amended the definition of "public record" to limit the scope of records available to the public from the state legislature. As an aside, the state legislature also is exempt from the Open Public Meetings Act. This means that if the Gold Bar City Council wants to spend $100 on park benches, all of the discussions and the decisions must occur in public. If, however, the state legislature needs to cut $1,000,000 fro the state parks budget, that discussion can be held and the decision made in a closed caucus room. All the public ever sees is the final vote, confirming the decision.

I have no say over the Open Public Meetings Act, but in my role as a member of the Sunshine Committee, I proposed eliminating the legislature's Public Records Act exemption two years ago. In October 2007, I received a letter from the four leaders of the state legislature, asking me to delay action until the State Supreme Court addressed the legislative privilege issue and to allow all four legislative members of the Sunshine Committee to be present for the vote of the Sunshine committee. I agreed. The State Supreme Court decided not to address the legislative privilege. In March of this year, I re-introduced my recommendation to eliminate the legislative exemption, giving fair warning that the Sunshine Committee would be considering the recommendation this year.

This does not mean that the exemption will go away after Monday. The Sunshine Committee does not have the power to amend legislation. All we can do is make recommendations to the legislature. Last year we made 12 recommendations: 8 unanimous and 4 by a majority vote. Included was a recommendation to reverse the Hangartner decision (which says that there is an exemption for attorney-client communications).

The legislature adopted none of our recommendations. The legislature did, however, create 7 new exemptions to public disclosure. While the Sunshine Committee, which was chartered by the legislature to review and make recommendations eliminating exemptions to disclosure, the Legislature continues to increase the number of exemptions to public disclosure each year. Of course, that is how we go to over 300 exemptions. Rather than creating broad generic exemptions, the legislature has chosen instead to craft many narrow exemptions. Each one is tailored for a specific purpose. It is difficult to quarrel with any single one when taken individually, yet the net effect is to have a public disclosure system that is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Like many areas of government, there is no simple fix. At the Sunshine Committee, we have worked hard looking at individual exemptions and making appropriate recommendations. It may, however, take more time and a different approach to convince the Legislature to act on the recommendations they asked us to produce.

Another matter that we will take up Monday is a proposed resolution to have the legislature sunset all of the exemptions to the Public Records Act after two years, re-examine each exemption and limit all new exemptions to two year periods. The resolution would exclude the original 10 exemptions. While a radical approach, we may need something along those lines if we are going to fix the Public Records Act and return it to its original purpose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aurora Motels

Aurora Avenue is an interesting paradox. It is lined with valuable businesses that are an important part of our community, but at the same time, many of these businesses need to defend their property as if they were in a war zone. Listening to community members and business owners one has to admire their perseverance and dedication.

The problem, like many in our society, has to do with the automobile. In the 1940s and 1950s motor inns sprung up along the U.S. route system to accommodate the growth of automobile travel. In 1956, the Federal Government passed the Interstate Highway Act, creating the Interstate Highway system bypassing the old U.S. routes and hurting the businesses that had grown up to serve them. Throughout the country, communities struggle with crime in these areas, which naturally lend themselves to becoming easy markets for drugs and prostitution. One sharp blogger points out that the plot of the movie Psycho revolves around the Bates Motel, which has been bypassed by an interstate and not had a guest in eight months. In Seattle, we don't have a Bates Motel, but we do struggle with several less than reputable places.

My office has tried several options, with some success. The State is responsible for health and safety at motels, but has only one inspector for the entire state. Our North Precinct Liaison, Ed McKenna created a checklist based on state regulations which he gave to police officers to use whenever they were inside a motel room on a call. The officers filled out the checklist and Ed faxed them into the state inspector. This has led to better conditions at some motels and closures at others. Not everyone likes this program. Since we need consent to enter a room, one motel owner directed his guests not to cooperate with the police or my office.

We also have conducted motel training. The idea is to help motel owners better understand methods of preventing crime in their properties. Simple steps, such as asking for identification, can make motels less desirable for drug dealers and prostitutes. The reputable business owners attend these sessions and have done a good job at reducing crime around their businesses. Unfortunately, the problem owners do not often attend these sessions.

As a regular part of our operation, we file tax delinquency cases against businesses that fail to pay city taxes. It is rare, however, to file a case with 152 charges, such as we filed this week. Working in coordination with the Mayor's office and several city departments, we filed these cases as part of an effort to address five problem motels, which happen also to be behind on their taxes.

We were very concerned about innocent people who might be living in these places. Accordingly, city outreach workers accompanied by Seattle Police officers went to each of the properties in question to help the people living in these motels. This is only the first step. We owe it to the community and the other businesses to follow through on this effort and do all we can to make Aurora the vibrant thoroughfare it could be.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August has been great month!

What a month! Okay so we had some 90 degree plus days, but the weather is back to normal and I am very excited about the way things are shaping up in the criminal justice community. You may have heard about the Drug Market Initiative, which takes a fresh approach to stopping street drug dealing. DMI gives lower level street drug dealers a chance to change by not filing charges and by involving their families and their community to end the drug dealing. Last year, I obtained a federal grant to organize this project. My office has coordinated that effort for the last six months. So last week, when we brought in the candidates, their families, community leaders, religious leaders and service providers to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, was the end of a long road. Looking at the hopeful faces of parents who want more than a life on the streets for their children and being able to give them that opportunity, was one of the most moving moments of my life. Watching a community come together was extraordinary and I was very proud of my role in making it happen.

This week we were visited by two representatives from the New York's Center for Court Innovation. They were here because Seattle's Community Court was selected by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of three "mentor" courts in the country to help other communities follow our model. When you work on a project like the Community Court, as I have for the last four years, you focus on the day to day details. Outside experts give you perspective. They watched a group of defendants enter Community Court on Wednesday and then do their Community Service in Lake City on Thursday. They were not only impressed with our ability to get our defendants out working, but also by the way that we have integrated our program into existing community organizations. In many places, community service is make-work. Not so in Seattle! We do work that the community needs and we do it working with the community. On Thursday, our visitors were amazed to see our defendants working alongside members of the Lake City Chamber to remove invasive ivy from the median in Lake City Way and to design a mural to brighten up the neighborhood. I am very proud of the partnerships we have built.