A sobering look at Tom Carr

One of Seattle’s most controversial (and unpopular) politicians is about to become Boulder’s city attorney

Dominic Holden
Photo courtesy of The Stranger

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Carr’s time in office, the city spent an estimated $32.5 million on
outside attorney fees and $63 million on judgments and settlements.

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.

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?

* * *

“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.”

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

“I actually live on the Hill,” adds Wilson.

“I’m an expert on the subject.”

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.

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.”

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?

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.”

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

“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?

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.

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.”

* * *

Morzel is right: Carr, 53, has an impressive background.

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.

has said that in controversial cases he was in a difficult position,
forced to defend the city regardless of how unpopular it may be.

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.”

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

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.”

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.

* * *

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.)

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

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.”

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.

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.)

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.”

Seattle, Carr “was going in and telling restaurants that they were not
restaurants and they were improperly zoned,” says Osgood.

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.”

Griffith, who sits on the University Hill Commercial Area Management
Commission, says that alcohol is a valuable way for restaurants to stay
in business.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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