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New city attorney will have to report on how effective Seattle’s diversion programs are

The new ordinance comes as the attorney's office gets a 9% increase in funding under the 2022 budget.

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council voted Monday 7-1 to require the city attorney to begin reporting specific data throughout the year in an effort to gain some oversight over the office and build transparency. 

Councilmember Kshama Sawant was not present at the council meeting and did not cast a vote. 

The ordinance requires the city attorney to report quarterly on the office’s criminal division and its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which looks to help those accused of committing crimes related to behavioral health or poverty without going through the criminal justice system.

The ordinance also requires the city attorney to deliver an annual report on its pre-filing diversion program, which allows those who are arrested for misdemeanor crimes to enroll in programs and avoid having criminal charges filed against them.

Via an amendment passed during Monday's meeting, the city attorney will also have to notify the public safety committee chair within 90 days of the implementation of any changes to the pre-filing diversion program. Possible changes listed in the amendment include any modifications to eligibility requirements or how the program is being administered.  

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The ordinance comes weeks after the city elected Republican Ann Davison to the nonpartisan city attorney role, which she’ll take over from Pete Holmes on Jan. 1.

The city attorney's office is made up of three divisions: criminal, civil and administration. 

The criminal division prosecutes misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and traffic infractions. The cases prosecuted include DUIs, misdemeanor assault and domestic violence, misdemeanor theft and trespassing.

The civil division represents the city of Seattle in lawsuits and advises officials in program development, projects, policies and legislation. 

The administration division provides services for the office, including budgeting and human resources.

The new ordinance impacts the criminal division and the various diversion programs the city attorney oversees. 

Among the reasons for the ordinance is what it calls issues within the criminal legal system, which the ordinance notes is "rife with racial disproportionality, affecting Black and brown communities across the city."

By increasing transparency, the ordinance aims to help the council and public assess essentially how well the city attorney is doing at her job. 

The ordinance also says the change in leadership introduces “potential uncertainty,” with the goal of the new requirements being to “reduce that uncertainty.”

Currently, the only legislation governing the city attorney’s responsibilities is in the city charter, which states, ”The City Attorney shall have full supervisory control of all the litigation of the City, or in which the City or any of its departments are interested, and shall perform such other duties as are or shall be prescribed by ordinance.”

Some issues were raised regarding the ordinance since it appeared following Davison being elected. 

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, explained Monday, "I do think that the timing has been somewhat unfortunate, given that this legislation appears decoupled from our budget, which has invited all sorts of strange interpretations and strange bedfellows opposing more transparency including a daily newspaper.”

Lewis said during the Public Safety and Human Services Committee meeting on Thursday that he had been working on the bill since August when it became clear Holmes would not retain his post.

“It is not aimed in any way toward any individual. It is aimed at the fact that we are experiencing a leadership transition at a time of an extreme public safety challenge as well as an increased investment in the office,” Lewis said.

Lewis explained that the recently passed 2022 budget gives a 9% increase in funding for the city attorney's office, giving Davison a budget of more than $38 million. 

“This incoming city attorney is going to have more resources available to her than any of her predecessors, including new positions to facilitate the collection and dissemination of data, which this legislation is structured to complement. This is not some new mandate on top of existing resources," Lewis said. 

Councilmember and chair of the committee, Lisa Herbold, explained that the bill doesn’t take away the city attorney’s prosecutorial power or any discretion she may exercise in choosing which cases to take to court.

“This is really, I think, a piece of legislation, as I understand it, that is very focused on our oversight and accountability and transparency related to our budget authority,” Herbold said while the ordinance was still in committee. 

The only council member to vote against the ordinance was Councilmember Alex Pedersen. He explained during a committee meeting last week that he doesn't understand why the council had to pass an ordinance to require the reporting from the city attorney rather than simply ask for it, as the council has successfully done in the past.

KING 5 reached out to Davison's campaign for comment on the ordinance but has not received a reply.

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