Two views, one job

Edsonya Charles and Tom Carr compete to be city attorney.

CREDIT MARK SIDRAN with this much: For better or worse, he made people pay attention to the city attorney's office. This year both candidates for the position, Tom Carr and Edsonya Charles, benefited somewhat from the high visibility; each received more votes in their race than outgoing Mayor Paul Schell did in his re-election campaign.

Of course, neither Carr nor Charles wants to be the next Mark Sidran. But how each of them approaches the job marks the biggest difference in these two low-key and uncontroversial candidates.

To Charles, the city attorney mainly serves as Seattle's chief prosecutor. This makes sense, since Charles has worked for four years as an assistant U.S. attorney. Most of her campaign issues revolve around public safety. For instance, Charles wants to beef up the city's community prosecutor program, which would put assistant city attorneys in police precincts and work with the police and community on public-safety issues. "We could do more" to make the public aware of community prosecutors, says Charles.

Also, she has some creative ideas on what to do with nonviolent offenders. Vandals, for instance, would do more good serving on work crews and cleaning up graffiti than spending time in jail, according to Charles.

While Charles plans to be a less activist city attorney than Sidran, she says it is appropriate for the city attorney to propose legislation, particularly in the area of public safety. At the same time, she says, "I don't see it as an advocacy role, per se."

Criminal law, however, makes up only a portion of the office. On other matters, says Charles, the best role for the city attorney is that of adviser.

"The city attorney's role is to analyze, critique, and defend decisions made by the City Council and the mayor," she says. Charles views the city attorney's job as an impartial role in city government. It can take a leadership role, but the city attorney does that best by giving the best legal advice to the decision makers.

"There's a role for the city attorney's office in everything the city does by providing information to the decision makers," she says. "I think it's important that the city attorney be an independent, rational voice."

Carr wants to be more of an activist leader. He thinks the city attorney's office can play an important role in solving the city's problems. In this sense, Carr's philosophy resembles that of Sidran, who used his position as city attorney to push the "civility laws," the impound law, and other controversial ordinances.

There the similarity between Carr and Sidran ends. Carr, like Charles, doesn't want to push legislation the way Sidran did. Passing laws, he says, is the City Council's job, not the city attorney's. What he can do is act as a mediator and help the City Council work with the community to find solutions.

"You have a role," says Carr, "where you get involved in problems and use the mediation skills that you have to bring solutions to the table." The city attorney should not propose legislation, but he should help the City Council craft good laws, according to Carr.

Carr cites two issues that he believes will quickly land on the city attorney's desk next year: fixing the impound law and finding a permanent place for Tent City. The impound law, which allows the police to take cars from drivers with suspended or revoked licenses, was declared unconstitutional earlier this year. The next city attorney will have to defend the ordinance, currently under appeal. Carr says that now is the perfect time for the city and the law's opponents to work together on a settlement that will make the law work. That's how he approaches his work as a civil attorney and how he would approach the city attorney's job, as well.

"I don't make the decisions for my clients, but I bring them together with people that can help them do it," he says.

He would do the same thing with Tent City. Only a new law would allow the roving homeless people's camp to permanently exist, says Carr. He says he'd like to bring together people from SHARE/WHEEL, which runs Tent City, and the City Council to find the camp a permanent home. "No one wants to be the one who closes down something like that," he says.

Carr says it's not the city attorney's place to dictate what direction Seattle takes. But the office can still play a part in Seattle's future, as a problem solver and mediator. "I believe the city attorney should be a leader in the community," says Carr.

That, he says, is why it's an elected position.

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