What's up with Pete Holmes? A Defiant City Attorney Appears to Be at a Turning Point

Joe Mabel/Creative Commons
Holmes in mellower times.
In the bitter turf battle that has broken out between City Attorney Pete Holmes and Mayor Mike McGinn over federally mandated police reforms, there's a lot of testosterone flying around. The mayor, however, is offering an olive branch by suggesting a meeting with the city attorney. Holmes refuses to take it, saying that the mayor must first retract accusations he directed toward him.

Isn't Holmes the guy who, dressed in jeans and speaking in his slight southern drawl, could recently be seen stumping for marijuana legalization? Shouldn't he be a little more, well, mellow?

No, actually. To understand Holmes, you have to look back to his emergence on the public scene in the early aughts, when the then bankruptcy lawyer gained a seat on the citizens' board starting up at the time to review the police department's Office of Professional Accountability. Some people thought that Holmes was too mild and conventional for the job. He proved anything but.

He launched a fierce battle for transparency, and what really got him going was the resistance he faced from then City Attorney Tom Carr. The battle between the two men got ugly and personal--kind of like the fracas we're seeing now between Holmes and McGinn. Like our current mayor, Carr attacked Holmes, charging that the OPA review board chair had overstepped his role. Holmes reacted testily and dug his heels in, just as he is doing now.

The man's got a temper, which flares up when offended. He's evidently offended now, after a six-page letter from the mayor's legal counsel charging Holmes with violating the state's rules of professional conduct for not abiding by SPD's wishes in negotiations with

police monitor Merrick Bobb and the Department of Justice.

A bigger surprise than the way he's currently behaving is the role he has played since taking office in 2009. Specifically, on police issues, he has not proved the force for transparency that he was as a citizen. His office has aggressively tried to stop the release of dash-cam videos, even suing an attorney who demanded such videos. (Note: That attorney, James Egan, threatened a lawsuit himself, which may well have tripped Holmes' stubborn side.)

Now, in taking a stance that veers from the police department, Holmes is merely returning to form. His position is that he, as an elected official, represents the city's interests as a whole, not just SPD's.

The substance of this battle is more complicated than it looks. Holmes' wants the city to take a less confrontational approach with Bobb, who has submitted a plan of action for police reform that SPD doesn't like. One of the problems for the police department, and also the mayor, is that Bobb is moving too slowly. Says the letter from the mayor's counsel, which is posted on The Seattle Times website and refers to the city's settlement with DOJ:

The Settlement Agreement requires the Monitor to complete his review of policies and training materials within 45 days of receiving a draft. Mr. Bobb's plan indicates that he will delay approval of many policies and training curricula for 5 to 9 months, or more.

It's hard to know who's right here. Is quicker better or is time needed for a more thorough job? But it's easy to see how SPD, which has become used to the city attorney taking its side, would think Holmes would do so now.

Instead, Holmes seems to be at a turning point, perhaps prompted into soul-searching by this landmark process in the city's history. Unwilling to be interviewed, he has not yet explained his thinking.

UPDATE: Holmes spokesperon Kimberly Mills says that the city attorney "has not been called, emailed, written or approached by the mayor for a meeting."

The mayor made his meeting suggestion on a KIRO radio interview on Wednesday, but apparently didn't take it to the next level after Holmes sent out a statement saying that

"until the Mayor withdraws and disclaims" his counsel's "inaccurate and unwarranted accusations and assertions...we will be forced to continue preparing a response."

Nevertheless, Mills says: " Pete has NOT rejected a meeting with the mayor, and our attorneys meet every day on the monitoring plan with SPD and mayoral reps."

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