For a position that handles the prosecution of all of Seattle's misdemeanor cases, oversees 90 lawyers and maintains a $19 million budget, the City Attorney has a job that's often overlooked. Or, it used to be.
That's all changed with this year's race, which pits two-term incumbent Tom Carr against bankruptcy lawyer and civic-minded upstart Pete Holmes. With their emotions often simmering in plain sight, the pair has turned what could have been a lukewarm, low-level electoral contest into a hot -- and, at times, heated -- battle.
Part of this comes down to how they view the position itself. Carr, with eight years in the office, sees his responsibility, first and foremost, as acting as Seattle's lead prosecutor. The independent post, he says, also compels the City Attorney to proffer legal advice to the city -- whether the Mayor or City Council -- that it may not like.
Because the City Attorney is elected by voters and not appointed, Holmes, who felt called to public service, believes "citizens should get a chance to hire the lawyer that closely approximates their beliefs." In other words: along with being the city's lawyer, the $130,000-a-year position "serves the citizens, protects their rights."
Carr -- who ran unopposed in 2005 -- finds that "dangerous rhetoric." He wonders: what if someone sues the city? Whom would Holmes represent? "I shudder to think what it would be like with Pete Holmes saying he wanted x or y."
During his tenure, Carr says his record proves he's worked to reduce the daily jail population, which he says hovers around 250 inmates. He notes that with the development of the Community Court -- which offers low-level offenders an opportunity, by pleading guilty to avoid jail time -- the city saved money, some $250,000 according to one study.
Those funds could be redirected toward housing, he suggests. His commitment to ending homelessness is evident, he adds, by his serving on the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and helping establish Tent City 3. As for Nickelsville, Carr says the encampment doesn't have a legal leg to stand on for one simple reason: " It's against the building code."
Holmes, who has visited Nickelsville and knows several residents by name, says that he would meet with Nickelodeons to help them find a permanent site. And while he admits he can't cure homelessness, he says, "It's time the City Attorney's office stop saying why it can't [meet with Nickelsville] and start trying to find a solution."
In Holmes' opinion, the City Attorney's office current interpretation of attorney-client privilege has put a lock on public disclosure; he intends to publish legal opinions online, thereby overturning a practice undertaken during Carr's tenure. He wants to ensure Councilmember Tim Burgess' measure to stop aggressive panhandling -- which Holmes says is already illegal -- doesn't polarize people and waste resources. And the push to build a new jail is a mistake, in his eyes, when schools are being closed. "The people on the outside looking in are frustrated," he says.
And maybe witnessing friction between the candidates. Perhaps that's because of their history: For more than six years, Holmes served on -- and, for a while, chaired -- the Office of Professional Accountability, a civilian panel that examines police misconduct cases. There, the two had a few tangles, most notably over the scope of a confidentiality agreement. Of his time on the OPA, Holmes claims the board was given little direction and Carr played favorites; Carr counters that Holmes just didn't get along well with folks. Both contend such statements aren't meant as attacks on character, but as criticism of the other's record.
And they agree on one more thing: Even if Carr has been "flabbergasted" by his opponent's critiques, and Holmes has become "strident" when addressing negative appraisals leveled by his challenger, both are glad voters care about a race that, in the past, rarely garnered a second thought.