Tom Carr was hoping for another win last November.
Inside a Greek pizzeria, surrounded by supporters wearing pastel button-ups and talking baseball, Carr waited for the election results. This could be his third term as Seattle’s city attorney, a position that commands heavy sway over the city’s approach to policy and crime. The numbers came in at 8:17 p.m.; Carr was losing by 23 points. That chasm would spread to 28 points by the time the election was certified. Nobody could recall a sitting politician in Seattle losing by such a wide margin — nearly two-to-one.
“I’m stunned,” said Pete Holmes, Carr’s challenger, who had no background in politics. “I thought this would be a tight race.”
Carr chalked up his drubbing to “an antiincumbent year.” He planned to “go skiing for a couple months,” he said, “then go get a job.”
A few months passed, and on May 17 the Boulder City Council gave Carr that job — and not far from good skiing. At a meeting that ran until midnight, the council members unanimously appointed Carr as Boulder’s next city attorney, a position with considerable power. Starting July 1, Carr will oversee a staff of 17 people, help draft zoning ordinances for City Council on issues like where bars and pot shops can open, decide when to defend the city from lawsuits and when to settle out of court, and prosecute people who break the law. He will decide which businesses face strict regulations and which don’t. He will decide who gets charged with a municipal crime and who doesn't. He will make $170,000 a year.
“I don’t think someone should be branded for life because he lost an election,” says Boulder Deputy Mayor Ken Wilson, who was particularly impressed by Carr’s ideas to regulate bars and defend the city’s ban on camping. “In the last month we have seen some pretty good incumbents lose at the federal level because people wanted change.”
But it’s not simply that Carr lost an election.
Nor that it was the first time a sitting city attorney had lost in 30 years.
It’s why he lost. Carr had embroiled himself, over eight years in office, in several of the most incendiary controversies in Seattle — crusading against bars and nightlife, shielding government records from the public and losing cases that cost the city millions of dollars.
Cleve Stockmeyer was one of Carr’s big early supporters, an attorney who sat on Carr’s steering committee when he first ran for office in 2001, but who later became one of Carr’s loudest critics.
“He embodied the arrogance of power, something that both liberals and conservatives hate in America,” Stockmeyer says.
After several years in office (Carr ran unopposed in 2005), “enough people experienced his bad lawyering and scorched-earth tactics that people got a sense that he wasn’t doing a good job,” he says.
Several missteps turned into major news stories. Most notorious was a sting called “Operation Sobering Thought.” In 2007, Carr and the Seattle Police Department claimed that two dozen people either illegally served minors or let undercover officers who didn’t have valid ID into bars. But the campaign was widely considered overzealous and sloppy. Among the follies, police jailed a bar employee for 11 hours, allegedly for serving a drink to a drunk man — which would be considered over-service — but the Seattle Times wrote that the police report says the bartender “poured him a glass of water.” Carr charged the bartenders and doormen with gross misdemeanors, punishable by a year in jail, but not a single case resulted in a conviction. Some cases were tossed out. One jury found a man not guilty in 20 minutes; two cases ended in mistrials. As a deluge of public criticism swelled — the entire sting appeared to be politically timed one week before the Seattle City Council was set to vote on strict new rules for nightclubs — Carr offered slap-on-the-wrist plea agreements for lesser charges to 17 of the defendants, most of whom had no criminal history.
Just before the election last year, Carr faced more cries of political motivation against bars. An assistant attorney at Carr’s office warned bar owners — who had overwhelmingly come out to support Carr’s opponent — that police would approach apparently intoxicated pedestrians, ask them where they’ve been drinking, and try to shut down any bars they name. Carr claimed problems of over-service at bars in the Capitol Hill neighborhood were linked to rising assaults and robberies. But police records showed that robberies and assaults in the neighborhood were actually down.
In the arena of open government, Carr refused to provide legal protection to members of a board that oversees the Seattle Police Department’s misconduct investigations, who could have been sued when they issued reports. The result, in effect, was to block the police-misconduct information from going public. The Seattle Times also lambasted Carr for successfully fighting to withhold public documents all the way up to the state’s supreme court, while later saying that the city had to release names of members of a gay group of city employees (to an anti-gay activist who requested them).
“When the disclosure law was aimed at the government, Carr defended the government; when it was aimed at city employees in their private concerns, he didn’t defend them,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
And in the arena of the press, Carr subpoenaed three reporters from the Seattle Times to name their confidential sources in court, only backing off after the newspaper insisted journalists have a legal shield from requests for private information.
“This isn’t like he did something one time that was a scandal or unpopular; it is that he was an ineffective city attorney,” says David Meinert, an owner of Seattle restaurants and bars and a leader of the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association. “People in Seattle were soundly — I mean overwhelmingly — against his policy when it came to these law-and-order politics.”
In cases where the city had been sued, some say Carr was notorious for going too far.
Balloon artist “Magic Mike” Berger sued the city in 2002, claiming that officials at the Seattle Center (a 74-acre park in the middle of the city with several performance venues) had infringed on his constitutional rights when they required him to buy a permit and stand in one spot to blow balloons. Berger lost his case at first but challenged the ruling. Carr’s office fought Berger all the way into federal court — losing when a panel of judges ruled that parks are locations “where a speaker’s First Amendment protections reach their zenith.” After losing, Carr’s office said it was considering appealing the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He took not only unpopular positions, but he took positions that crossed constitutional lines, which triggered lawsuits that cost the city millions of dollars,” says Meinert.
Carr defended the city’s decision to impound vehicles driven by people with a suspended license (such as drivers who failed to pay traffic tickets). The state supreme court tossed out the law — which essentially skipped due process by seizing people’s property on the spot — and a judge later decided against the city, ruling it had to pay up to $1.3 million in settlements.
In another instance, last year Carr refused to settle out of court in the case of an out-of town firefighter who, in the dark of night, fell down a 15-foot pole hole that lacked a barrier. The firefighter, who suffered permanently debilitating bone and brain damage, and his attorney offered to accept $8 million in exchange for dropping the case. Carr didn’t budge. And a jury — in what was widely seen as a penalty against the city — awarded the man $12.75 million. Even then, Carr’s office issued a statement saying it was “reviewing options for appeal.” The city spent $526,000 on the case in attorney fees.
During Carr’s time in office, the city spent an estimated $32.5 million on outside attorney fees and $63 million on judgments and settlements.
“He would take a loss before he would compromise on a case and had done so on several occasions,” says David Osgood, an attorney who defended several cases against Carr.
Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata (one of several local incumbents who held their seats by a wide margin last November in the socalled “anti-incumbent year”), says, “Substance was an issue for sure, but style played a major role.”
He says Carr was “just too used to seeing things his way, and he thought his way was the right way.”
The question is: What will Carr do in Boulder?
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“We have a lot of bars near the university and a lot of rental properties that become party houses,” says Wilson, who as deputy mayor serves on City Council. “It has been a long struggle.”
Alcohol consumption near the University of Colorado campus — over-service, underage drinking, binge drinking, riots — has been a notoriously contentious issue in Boulder’s University Hill neighborhood over the years.
“I actually live on the Hill,” adds Wilson.
“I’m an expert on the subject.”
The City Council asked the three finalist candidates — including acting Boulder City Attorney David Gehr and the current city attorney of Springfield, Mo., Daniel Wichmer — about their strategies for addressing the problem, Wilson says.
“I felt that Tom Carr had a good, progressive attitude about holding the bars accountable for being good establishments, not over-serving and holding them to the law.”
Wilson added that Carr talked about “good neighbor agreements,” which are contracts with bar owners required for the city to give its approval for liquor licenses, “and we have tried to use those also, so I think he can help us with that.”
Was the council concerned about Carr’s history with nightlife in Seattle?
“I looked briefly at some of the reporting on that, and it sounded like he had a pretty strong stance, and some bar owners didn’t like that and organized against him,” Wilson says. “We saw his career as a whole and saw it as being positive.”
Carr also impressed the council with his take on dealing with the city’s estimated 150 to 200 homeless people. Boulder prohibits people from sleeping in parks or any public space — a crime punishable by a citation.
“Some of the homeless people are saying it is against the Constitution to prevent people from sleeping in parks,” Wilson says, “and there have been threats of lawsuits from the ACLU.”
Each candidate had a chance to make a 15-minute presentation to the council on any one of a variety of topics.
“Tom picked homeless camping issues,” says Wilson. “He was confident that the city camping law was legal and defensible.”
“You can get into the national forest in six miles or less,” Wilson adds, noting that buses get very close to the woods.
So if you don’t have a place to sleep, you have to leave town and take your chances in the wilderness?
“That’s the law,” says Wilson. Carr has been picked, in part, because he intends to defend that law and hold bars accountable with his signature good neighbor agreements.
Lisa Morzel, a progressive member of the City Council, says she didn’t know about Carr’s trouble in Seattle. Morzel says Carr gave her the impression that “he would try to find a resolution before going to litigation,” she says. “I just thought he sounded very experienced. He had alot of background and seemed like he would be a really good candidate.”
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Morzel is right: Carr, 53, has an impressive background.
Born and raised in New York City, Carr was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, where he handled civil cases. In Seattle, he was a partner at the Seattle law firm Barrett Gilman & Ziker. And, earning his environmental cred, he chaired the development authority in charge of building a lengthy Seattle monorail line (which was never built due to financial complications). After winning office as the city attorney in 2001, Carr was light-footed at first. Among his accomplishments: He helped start a community court that connects offenders with services, keeping them out of jail and reducing recidivism; he negotiated an agreement to allow Tent City 3, a nomadic group of homeless campers, to set down temporary stakes while still within the bounds of Seattle law; he worked on a drug-market program to get dealers off the streets and into services; and he took a hard line on drunk drivers and men engaging in domestic abuse.
Carr has said that in controversial cases he was in a difficult position, forced to defend the city regardless of how unpopular it may be.
“There is an ethical obligation to defend your clients,” Carr said last summer. “My view is that the role of the city attorney is to work with the policymakers.” In April, he told the Daily Camera that much of the election coverage was “blown out of proportion,” and, “There was a lot of rhetoric that went around.”
Even Carr’s critics universally recognize that Carr is quite brilliant. Licata calls him “hardworking.” Another Seattle City Council member, Tom Rasmussen, endorsed Carr in his re-election bid, citing his outstanding advocacy for victims of domestic violence and violent crimes.
But shortly after giving an endorsement speech last summer, Rasmussen also commented on the behavior of Carr on a panel that oversaw marijuana enforcement. He said Carr was “shocking,” “inappropriate” and “very rude.” And Osgood, the attorney representing defendants charged by Carr, echoes, “He’s been very thinskinned and quick to anger. He carries a grudge.”
Carr’s biggest supporters wouldn’t comment on his accomplishments for this story. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which stumped hard for Carr and against his opponent last fall, didn’t return e-mails. Carr’s number-one ally on the city council, Tim Burgess, a former cop and chair of the public safety committee, refused to comment because he didn’t want to meddle in Boulder’s politics, he says. Carr didn’t respond to requests for comment either.
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Carr’s responsibilities in Boulder will be similar
to the ones he had in Seattle. This breaks down, roughly
speaking, into three categories: defending the city in civil litigation
if someone sues and representing the city when, say, someone reneges on
a contract; drafting contracts and writing ordinances at the request
of the council (including SmartRegs, which requires landlords to meet
efficiency standards by insulating attics, filling cracks in the walls,
etc.); and prosecuting defendants in Boulder’s municipal court, which
handles certain citations, such as those issued against homeless people who fall asleep on city
property and minors caught in possession of alcohol. (The district attorney handles the vast majority of alcohol-related prosecutions.)
Since his legacy in Seattle is tethered to his handling of nightlife, and because Wilson cited Carr’s thoughts on dealing with bars — particularly “good neighbor agreements” — as a reason for appointing Carr, that issue warrants further examination.
“Probably 90 percent of our police calls are alcohol-related,” says Wilson, citing problems with sexual assaults and fights.
Bars have clashed with the city’s attempts to regulate them in the past, including Thunderbird Burger and BBQ, which successfully sued about three years ago when the city tried to restrict hours of service at a new location. But officials are still debating the implication of that ruling. Wilson believes the city may have influence over bars by changing land-use rules.
“We are looking at closing times and zoning rules and where you can put bars,” Wilson says. “That is very much up in the air.
“I think Tom brings some new ideas and a lot of experience, and we’ll just see where he can help us,” Wilson continues. “I’d be interested in hearing what was tried in Seattle in the past. There are big differences in the law, I’m sure, but I’m sure he can tell us what the differences are and have some solutions for us to think about.”
Epitomizing Carr’s approach to dealing with bars and nightlife — aside from his work with cops on bar stings and prosecuting violators — was his zeal for so-called “good neighbor agreements,” essentially contracts that a restaurant or bar owner would have to sign before Seattle would give the green light for the state of Washington to issue a liquor permit. Most egregious, according to nightlife advocates, was one he drafted for a bar called Twist. That agreement mandated — among 54 specific regulations — that no doors or windows could ever be open, no dancing was allowed, and that staff had to wear “finely tailored black suits.” And the Blue Moon, a bar where officers had made undercover busts for a total of less than one ounce of marijuana, was pressured to sign an agreement that required the owner to pay for any security employed by a neighborhood association, and that bar security had to carry “a high-beam flashlight.” The Blue Moon’s owner refused to sign the agreement.
Some agreements didn’t work. “Even though he has imposed these over-the-top top good neighbor agreements on all sorts of nightclubs, the neighbors weren’t happier. They didn’t solve the problems,” says Meinert, citing a growing sense of street disorder in Seattle’s club district of Belltown. “He not only goes too far, but his solutions are ineffective.”
“I’d have to say it’s the city attorney’s personal vendetta,” state Rep. Ken Jacobsen told the Seattle Weekly in 2006, when asked about the Blue Moon contract.
If you’re looking for insight into his hard-nosed perspective on alcohol, Carr shed some light when he was addressing an organization of women voters last fall. Carr said that his father, an alcoholic, died of an alcohol-related accident falling down a flight of stairs when Carr was 14 years old.
“I don’t talk about this much,” he said. “When I was a kid, police would come to my house a lot. Back then, police would show up and just tell my dad to quiet down.”
Chris Emma, a leader of the Boulder-based Responsible Hospitality Group, a coalition of about 45 restaurants of the city’s 270 licensed establishments, says, “We know what hurts our business in terms of overregulation. I guess if any new city attorney were to come to town and come out of the box wielding a sword and try to assert his authority, he would be met with a little more organized group of operators.”
Emma adds, “I think we would want to approach someone who took a heavy-handed approach to get them at the table and start talking. He would probably want to listen to what we have to say because we have a pretty big stake in the economy.”
However, Carr hasn’t always taken kindly to dealing with bar operators. In October 2007, a group of bar owners was trying to negotiate less restrictive terms on a nightlife license. An e-mail reportedly sent by Carr to city staff said, “Abandon all attempts to collaborate with the nightlife industry. Any negotiations at this point would come only from a position of weakness.”
Carr, according to the e-mail, then called on them to “increase regulatory enforcement.”
Carr did not respond to a request last fall to confirm whether he wrote the e-mail.
Some bars struggled to stay afloat.
The owner of the Blue Moon sold his business.
“If they want to kill nightlife in Boulder — make bars go away, make music venues go away — Tom Carr is your guy,” Meinert says.
While he may be directed by the City Council to require “good neighbor agreements,” Carr won’t have direct authority over issuing liquor licenses (a city licensing authority does that). However, “When you apply for your liquor license, anyone in the community could oppose a liquor license for whatever reason,” says Boulder city spokesman Patrick von Keyserling. (Carr has objected to liquor licenses in Seattle.)
Carr’s authority over liquor would come largely, von Keyserling says, from “zoning that [bars] would have to comply with, and they would have to go through the city beverage licensing authority to determine if a license would be granted.”
In Seattle, Carr “was going in and telling restaurants that they were not restaurants and they were improperly zoned,” says Osgood.
In the case of the Mexican restaurant El Chupacabra, one of Carr’s assistant attorneys announced one day that it needed a different sort of license, says Osgood, who served as the restaurant’s attorney. He adds that under those sorts of pressures, “you have no certainty of your status of your ability to do business.”
Hillary Griffith, who sits on the University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission, says that alcohol is a valuable way for restaurants to stay in business.
“It is hard for them to economically survive if alcohol is not partly a component. Bands cost a lot of money, and you have got to find a way to fund that,” she says.
But the Hill neighborhood residents are well-organized and fed up with the ravages of binge-drinking.
“As a commissioner, I am hearing from people outside the area and neighborhood who think that people have cracked down too hard, businesses who think they have cracked down too hard, and students who say they have cracked down too hard,” she says.
On the other hand, she notes, “neighborhood people are saying that the well-being and safety have been dramatically improved by some of the toughness around how some businesses operate.”
Carr will also have to sort through new rules for medical-marijuana dispensaries, largely based on land use.
Wilson said he wasn’t familiar with Carr’s take on marijuana laws, but says, “I’m sure he tries to define and help with the law.”
But Carr apparently didn’t take kindly to rules that tolerate pot in Seattle. Carr took a hard opposition to a 2003 voter initiative to make marijuana possession the city’s lowest law enforcement priority, and after it passed he believed that he should continue to prosecute marijuana possession cases.
[Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Holden, the writer, ran the campaign for the initiative and sat with Carr on a panel that oversaw the measure’s implementation.] Pot prosecutions did drop — thanks to Seattle police making fewer arrests — but Carr prosecuted a higher percentage of pot cases referred to his office.
“We don’t want Tom Carr to import his backward thinking on marijuana,” says Mason Tvert, the director of a Colorado-based marijuana-legalization group called SAFER. (Carr won’t prosecute marijuana cases because the district attorney handles those.) “We hope Tom Carr will respect the fact that the majority of the citizens of Boulder think marijuana should be legal.”
* * *
There is one major difference between Seattle and Boulder — Boulder’s city attorney is appointed, not elected. As a result, he acts on behalf of City Council and not independently. He will have no independent police authority nor the ability to direct the police.
“The city attorney serves at the pleasure of the council,” Wilson says. “Tom is a very bright man, and I am sure he will adapt to the situation.”
And a city attorney has great leeway; Carr has the discretion to interpret his job quite differently in Boulder. After all, his Seattle successor Holmes has stopped marijuana prosecutions completely, has been supportive of nightlife and even pushed for discussion to extend bar operating hours, and has been a staunch advocate of transparency — all while remaining within the bounds of the law.
Carr could take a more measured approach in Boulder, too.
“I would be very careful about the length of the leash you give him,” says Osgood, “or you are going to see a lot less nightlife, and you will probably see a backlash against the people who hired him.”
Dominic Holden is news editor of The Stranger, a weekly Seattle newspaper. Holden voted for Carr in 2001 and 2005.