By Erica C. Barnett
Last year, as the city was debating how to address skyrocketing attrition from the Seattle Police Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed a controversial emergency order that offered signing bonuses between $10,000 and $25,000 to new SPD officers and staffers at the city’s 911 call center.
The city council, which had spent months trying to get the department to stop spending beyond its means, was reluctant to agree to an open-ended hiring bonus program and subsequently voted 8-1 to amend the executive order so that it would expire at the end of 2021. (The lone “no” vote was socialist Kshama Sawant, who opposed funding even temporary hiring bonuses.) The council also rejected Durkan’s efforts to add $1.1 million to the 2022 budget to fund hiring bonuses this year. Executive orders, including any amendments, have the force of law.
Instead of accepting the council’s changes, Durkan decided she could just ignore them.
On December 30, Durkan sent a directive to Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Community Safety and Communications Center Chris Lombard telling them to disregard the council’s changes to her order and keep issuing bonuses after the expiration date.
Her explanation was vague. “Based on consultations with legal Counsel, it has been concluded that the City Council’s actions to limit the Emergency Order were not effective,” Durkan wrote. “Thus, you should continue to hire and implement the terms of the Order, until incoming Mayor Harrell or the City Council effectively act [to] extend or alter the terms of the Order.”
“Based on consultations with legal counsel, it has been concluded that the City Council’s actions to limit the Emergency Order were not effective,” Durkan wrote. “Thus, you should continue to hire and implement the terms of the Order, until incoming Mayor Harrell or the City Council effectively act TO extend or alter the terms of the Order.”—Ex-Mayor Jenny Durkan, directing SPD to ignore the expiration of the city’s hiring incentive law
Durkan staffer Julie Kline (currently an attorney at Schroeter, Goldmark, & Bender, Durkan’s former firm) sent a letter, signed by Durkan, to then mayor-elect Harrell’s office the same day providing slightly more detail about her legal reasoning. “[I]t was concluded,” she wrote, “that Council’s failure to act on my Emergency Order in the time frame imposed by ordinance renders their actions ineffective as they did not endeavor to act in 48 hours as required by law.” In other words: Because the council didn’t act to amend the mayor’s emergency order within 48 hours, the expiration date never took effect.
“Accordingly,” Durkan continued, “I sent the attached letter to Chief Diaz and Director Lombard advising them that Council’s late action was not effective and that they should continue hiring according to the terms of the Emergency Order, until such time as you act to remand or revise the Emergency Order or Council takes effective legislative action.” In other words: Not only was Durkan ordering SPD to keep offering hiring bonuses in defiance of the council’s action, the only way to halt the bonuses would be to pass a brand-new law rescinding or changing it.
The problem with Durkan’s “48-hour rule” argument is that there is no 48-hour rule. There’s no deadline at all. Instead, the Seattle Municipal Code says the council must “endeavor to act on any order within 48 hours of its being presented to the Council by the Mayor.” That’s a recommendation, not a mandate.
A spokesman for Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said the administration “learned of the directives from Mayor Durkan on Thursday, January 27th and learned the bonuses were still in effect on Friday, January 28th. This new information directly conflicted with how the Durkan administration had previously briefed the incoming Harrell administration on these bonuses.”
According to Housen, Durkan’s office gave the incoming administration a briefing that included a slide stating that the emergency order would end on January 1 and recommending that the Harrell administration take action to extend it.
In an email to city council members and staff last week, Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell apologized for overlooking Durkan’s memo to Harrell about the hiring bonuses. “It was my belief (as per all the information provided to us by the outgoing Executive’s team via transitional in-person briefings and prior written documentation) that the incentive pay was ending on December 31st,” Deputy Mayor Harrell wrote. We have sent followup questions to Harrell’s office and will update this post when hear back.
As Matt Markovich reported for Q13 Wednesday, SPD has removed all references to hiring bonuses from their website.
The council did not allocate any money for police and call-center hiring bonuses beyond 2021. So far, SPD has hired at least five new officers this year, and the CSCC has hired at least 13 new staffers. Depending on whether those were new ($10,000) or lateral ($25,000) hires, the cost could be anywhere from approximately $180,000 to $450,000 or higher.
A spokesman for the police department responded to a list of detailed questions with the following statement: “Our capacity to offer these incentives is currently under review.” SPD did not answer questions about the directive and its implementation, how much hiring bonuses have cost the city in 2022 and how SPD will pay for them, why they stopped advertising hiring bonuses, and other questions about its decision to keep paying bonuses this year despite the council’s action in 2021.
According to Housen, the Harrell administration “is coordinating with Council and drafting legislation to ensure the bonuses offered to newly hired officers and dispatchers are fulfilled. The Mayor’s Office will continue to work with Council on future strategies to improve SPD, CSCC, and citywide staffing.” Last year, the council formally requested a study of a citywide hiring bonus program to fill frontline positions in all departments, not just SPD.