SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr
 

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posted Friday, June 5, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 23

SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr
by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer "I believe I'm one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country," Tom Carr told SGN in an exclusive interview this week. Carr is running for a third term as Seattle City Attorney. His opponent, Peter Holmes, was also interviewed for this week's SGN.

"There's a perception of me as a law-and-order guy," Carr continued. "That's just the way it goes. If I'm in the news, it's because I'm prosecuting someone. People don't see everything else that we do. I am a law-and-order guy, but that's not all."

Carr is perhaps best know to SGN readers for his recent suit against Seattle Out and Proud (SOAP), to collect debts to Seattle Center resulting from SOAP's financially disastrous 2006 Pride Festival. SOAP no longer operates the festival, and its annual Pride Parade has run in the black every year.

"Seattle Center hung me out to dry," Carr says. "It was the Center that made the decision to go forward [with the suit], as you know from exploring the facts." As previously reported in SGN, Seattle Center Productions Director John Merner worked with SOAP to organize 2006 Pride Festival at the Center, and subsequently instructed Carr to sue SOAP to collect the debt remaining from the event.

Peter Homes, Carr's opponent, says he would not have brought the suit against SOAP. "That's easy for him to say!" Carr exclaims. "That's his whole campaign. Anything that I've done, he wouldn't have done."

"If your client tells you to sue, you can't refuse to follow the client's instruction. That would be wrong." Carr says. "Collection lawsuits are just about money. We try to negotiate with all people who owe debts to the city. We negotiated with [SOAP] for a long time - nine months. Usually we wouldn't have waited that long with a debtor."

Carr admits he has a certain amount of discretion as City Attorney, but he cautions, "It's unusual to exercise discretion. We'd do it where we thought it was in the interests of the city."

"For example, Tent City," he continues. "We had a sympathetic defendant, we thought there was a good chance of losing, and then we'd have had an appellate judgment that the city couldn't enforce our building code. So we worked out a deal with SHARE/WHEEL. And that's still in place today."

"I'm really proud of the Tent City deal," Carr says. "People said you couldn't work with SHARE/WHEEL, but we did." Under a 2002 consent decree engineered by Carr, Tent City rotates its site on a participating church property every three months.

While Tent City has operated legally for many years, Carr was caught up in recent controversy over police sweeps of other homeless encampments. City officials estimate that up to 300 people live in some 25 camps around Seattle. In April 2008, Mayor Greg Nickels signed an order allowing the city to expel camp inhabitants with 72 hours' notice.

Resulting arrests led to 22 prosecutions. Seattle's Department of Transportation, the legal owner of the land on which the arrests occurred, subsequently instructed Carr to drop the charges.

Asked about his role in the sweeps, Carr says, "Nothing! Nothing at all. That was all the mayor's office. And the police."

"Most people don't know how hard I work on homelessness," Carr adds. "I'm on the Interagency Committee to End Homelessness. I'm the sole public safety guy. You know why? A lot of our defendants are homeless - 50% of the defendants in community court. When people are warm and dry, they're a lot less likely to commit crimes."

The IAC is a group of King County and city officials, directors of public service organizations, service providers, and faith and community leaders best known for their "10-Year Plan to End Homelessness."

Carr continues to defend the City's auto impound ordinance, originally put in place on the initiative of his predecessor Mark Sidran. The ordinance allowed police to seize the vehicles of people driving with suspended licenses. It was repealed by the City Council in 2004, because of concerns that it unfairly targeted people of color and the poor.

"People don't understand this, but the ordinance actually benefited minorities. Fewer African Americans were charged when impound was in effect than either before or after. But politics killed it," Carr says.

Carr also defends Operation Sobering Thought, a sting operation he engineered in 2007 to target bars and nightclubs serving underage drinkers. "It contributed to a calming attitude and a more collaborative approach," Carr insists. "By everybody's reports, it calmed down."

While most observers, than and since, believe the operation was misguided, Carr maintains the criticism signals its success. "What do you do when someone has you dead to rights?" Carr asks. "You say 'Oh, why me? I didn't do anything&' And we had them! We had 14 or 15 places, we had two guns. [Club owners] hired a PR guy to go after me. They really hammered me!"

Recalling his run-ins with his opponent, Peter Holmes, when Holmes served in the Office of Professional Accountability monitoring police conduct, Carr readily admits that he refused to indemnify Holmes against potential action by the police or their union.

"Of course!" Carr exclaims. "There was a confidentiality agreement. He's a lawyer, he signed it, he knew what he was signing. It was an interest arbitration as part of a collective bargaining agreement. You can't waive a collective bargaining agreement."

Carr notes with some satisfaction that he has received the endorsements of Holmes' colleagues on the OPA, Terry Carroll and Kate Pflaumer. "When people have worked with me, they endorse me. When people have worked with Pete - they endorse me," he grins.

When asked about the perception that he is sensitive - perhaps too sensitive - to public criticism, Carr looks astonished. "I don't know where you'd get that!" he exclaims.

"I've never responded to attacks on me," he says. "Only once I responded to a Times story that unfairly attacked one of my lawyers. The story named me, which I'm fine with, but it also named a senior staff attorney. I was furious! He was a good attorney who was doing his job."

"You take a lot of heat," Carr says philosophically. "It comes with the territory."



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