Mark Derricott, Editor
Does Aristotle’s theory of the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts hold true if we apply it to our community? Can something as abstract as a community possibly transcend the totality of its individuals? If so, how does that happen? If the Olympia Municipal Code is any guide, our community has adopted that theory. A municipal ordinance provides that we may name our public buildings after those who have “contributed outstanding civic service to the city”.[i] Though a great honor that may be, it is nonetheless an insufficient gesture of gratitude for any individual on whom it is bestowed. And if that is the so, a newsletter article is altogether unable to comprehend the life of an exceptional individual. Judge Scott K. Ahlf, Olympia Municipal Court Judge summed up the obvious problem when describing the life of his predecessor: “You can’t say enough about Lee Creighton. He gave everything to this court; to this community.” For all of our inability to express it, we can still recognize some of Lee Creighton’s contributions to the success of our own community.
Transition to an Elected Judge
Historical processes that dramatically shape any community often have facially innocuous origins. So it is with Olympia, Washington in 2002. That year, the Court Rules and Procedures Committee, which is a standing committee of the Washington State Bar Association’s Board of Governors,[ii] adopted General Rule 29 which streamlined the procedures for courts of limited jurisdiction, including municipal courts. It mandated that cities elect, rather than appoint, their full time judges. It also provided for the rules by which municipalities create their own judicial departments mirroring the federal government’s three distinct branches of government.
Up until that time, Olympia’s judges were appointed by the city manager and approved by its city council. The judge was not a full time position and often local attorneys would serve as the judge while devoting the remainder of their time to their practices. With General Rule 29, Olympia was required to elect its judge for the first time. Thus, the people of Olympia had a direct and final say in the choice of its judge and consequently the administration of its judicial department. This meant a dramatic transition in how the city manages its criminal justice system. Prior to the change, the judicial department had been under the Administrative Services department (i.e. the delegate of the City Manager). The change resulted in a new Court Services department, split off and operated independently under the direction of the judge. This included the budgets, choice of personnel and operations—in fact all decisions but salary and benefits were now under the independent control of the new Court Services department.
To head the transition, Lee Creighton was elected as Olympia’s first municipal court judge. His personality was apparent before he took the bench. During the election season which took the city’s prosecutor, Lee Creighton, to the bench, Steve Hall remembered that Creighton had campaign t-shirts printed. He asked his friend Steve Hall, at the time assistant city manager to wear one during a run that Hall had entered. When Hall refused on the basis that he was a city employee and could not take a position in an election, Creighton rationalized his disappointment with the rejoinder: “Well, you’re so slow no one would see it anyway.”
After Judge Creighton took over, Hall was assigned to assist in the transition to a separate full department in the government. Operating procedures was the primary concern to most of the staff, which approached 20 individuals at the time. Perhaps that is a problem that Olympians can appreciate more than most communities. Hall attributes a relatively smooth transition to Judge Creighton’s leadership. Judge Creighton quickly signed a memorandum of understanding that adopted the existing city policies and procedures concerning employment and operation. While there were certainly other speed bumps along the way, the transition was consummated with relative speed and ease.
As anyone who has been through a transition in the administration of government can attest, it is not an easy process, but time and leadership help. Bonnie Woodrow, Olympia Municipal Court Administrator was present for the transition. “We knew it was coming, so we were able to get ready, but a transition like that doesn’t happen without the cooperation of a lot of people. Information channels needed to be maintained or established so that we were informed of what we we’re all doing. Things that happened naturally before the transition had to be recreated in separate departments.”
For Hall, this was a historic moment in the development of our city. According to Hall, Judge Creighton brought three essential attributes to the position and the city’s government: “1.) His exemplary ethical standards; 2.) His professional management of court staff. Judge Creighton implemented fair and equitable administrative guidelines for dealing with his new staff; and, 3.) His personal attitude toward everyone who came into the courtroom—ensuring they were cared for and respected. Judge Creighton made them feel like city government treated them well regardless of the outcome.”
Judge Creighton’s Courtroom
As one might expect, the courtroom experience began to reflect Judge Creighton’s attitude and personality immediately. It bears mentioning that municipal court is not the easiest place to be a staff person. People are often upset and sometimes even indignant at the idea of taking time off from things they would rather be doing to show up to municipal court and answer for misdemeanors, (crimes punishable by less than a year in jail, e.g. drinking in public or driving with a suspended license). Too often, these frustrations are taken out on the staff given that they are often the most visible individuals. Judge Creighton noticed this and was always attempting to remedy it. At times, when defendants would get belligerent with the staff, they would sometimes notify the judge through their information system between the time they entered the courtroom and were heard. Judge Creighton’s orders often included requiring a defendant to issue an apology to the aggrieved staff person after the hearing.
Judge Creighton’s courtroom accolades are plentiful. Kalo Wilcox, once a city prosecutor, now a judge in Thurston County District Court extolled Judge Creighton’s strong advocacy for crime victims, his protection of constitutional rights, but also his sense of humor. “Anyone could see the respect he had for the accused who would appear before him.” Woodrow explained when questioned for examples. “He would listen to them; take the time to talk to them; and to treat them as people. You could see his compassion. People wanted to do well for him, they didn’t want to disappoint him and that came not out of fear, but from the respect that they all knew he was giving them.”
According to witnesses, Judge Creighton found ways to accommodate the necessity of decorum in the courtroom while still appealing to the ironical humor that life always presents. He was a huge X-Files fan; fashioned himself an “X-Filian”; and couldn’t resist giving weekly updates on the series from the bench. Monica Schneider, at the time the Probation Program Manager, recounts an unforgettable example of his courtroom humor: “I was in court on a probation matter and a defendant who I knew from high school was being sentenced. I was merely a bystander during that hearing and wasn’t paying too much attention when all of a sudden I heard, “I don’t care if you put me on probation, just don’t make me report to Monica.” I looked up surprised and then looked at Lee, who said, “Why? Did you two go to the prom together with some bad result?”
With the judge now responsible for the judicial department of the city, Judge Creighton had a full slate of administrative responsibilities when he wasn’t on the bench. Judicial administration included the probation department in which offenders are often placed after or in lieu of jail time sentences.
One true labor of love Judge Creighton was the Options Program of the Olympia Municipal Jail. Monica Schneider, the probation services manager explains: “The options programs were introduced back in 1996 after the Olympia Jail and Municipal Court contacted a consultant to do a study about jail population management and alternatives to incarceration. Originally, in 1996, when [Judge Creighton] was a prosecutor for the City of Olympia, the initial programs offered were minimal. I was hired to head the probation department and develop programs to alleviate jail crowding. The programs focused on enhancing probation services to defendants by providing more intensive supervision (ISP) for some offenders (specifically multiple DUI and DV offenders). In the first couple of years we offered standard probation services, intensive supervision probation, community service, and had a part time work crew program.
“People want a fair and responsible government, and they want offenders to be held accountable.” Remarked Judge Ahlf, “Jails are often on the third tier to funding from voters, but police officers are first.” Therefore, there is too little jail space to accommodate offenders. Innovative and creative programs like the Options Program can help bridge that gap by ensuring that people found to have committed crimes remain accountable, but within the voters’ constraints.
As the Options Program was developed, several additional jail time alternatives were introduced including: Electronic Home Monitoring, Day Jail, Work Crew, In-custody work crew, Driving Under the Influence Alternative program, and Community Service.
“Judge Creighton was instrumental in the development and continued success with all of our programs. He was extremely supportive in lobbying the prosecutors, the police/jail, and the City Council to allow us to be creative and offer new ideas or make changes to the programs to keep them fresh and flexible with the changing times. I very much appreciated working with Judge Creighton for a variety of reasons,” Schneider concluded, “he was supportive, he was innovative, and he promoted creativity in his staff. He was always open to new ideas and willing to give any reasonable one a chance to develop. Lee was a champion of the probation department.”
Off the Bench
As Judge Ahlf presciently remarked: The measure of how someone feels about their boss is whether his or her advice is still revered when no longer the boss. His staff still defers to his predecessor. “Even years later, I hear: ‘Lee would do this or that.’”
Charisma isn’t necessary to manage an effective organization, but it can certainly help. While charismatic leaders often crowd the pages of the history books, very few people have been able to describe what it actually means on a daily basis. It’s a much more difficult quality to define on a personal level, but people who knew Judge Creighton well seemed to understand charisma even if it’s not articulable. Hall told the city council on May 10, 2011 “Until tonight I thought I was [Judge Creighton’s] best friend in the whole world. Then I heard that he told [Paul Wohl] and [Judge Ahlf] the same thing.”
“He insisted on being called Lee [in the office].” Woodrow summarized his off the bench demeanor: “With him, it was hard to separate the professional from the personal because he brought you into his family. He cared about you and you knew it.”
Woodrow was quick to remark that “He always treated everyone as an equal. He always used the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. Schneider remembers: “Lee had a great personality and was also someone who was easy to get along with.” “There was no one more appreciative than me, when it came to smoothing things over with other departments.”
In what became a common theme that reverberated through any discussion about Judge Creighton, humor was a readily accessible arrow in his trusty quiver. During a particularly contentious dispute over budget allocation between departments responsible for the city’s justice administration, (including flying spreadsheets, angry emails, and the inevitable pep talk, kumbaya speeches, with their subsequent dressing downs) “Judge Creighton stopped us to talk […] and the first thing that came out was ‘Can’t we all just get along….’ There was nothing we could do but laugh.”
When smoothing out wrinkles between departments wasn’t necessary, Judge Creighton was able to keep morale up by being himself. His colleagues recall an uncanny ability to imitate voices as disparate as the characters of a Monty Python sketch, and Elmer Fudd which would certainly have been hilarious until the moment it wasn’t. Woodrow remembers that he would settle into neighboring offices to share a lighthearted moment, even in the face of relentless deadlines. She laughed as she recalled “Sometimes, I could not get him out of my office.” His administrative assistant during his years as a prosecutor knew the secret: “I would yell at him: “Go to your room!” and he would.” Diane Vanderhoof explained proudly.
As all of us living in Olympia well understand, our quaggy winters wax and wane through the long hours that comprise the majority our working lives. The other participants of our office environments typically determine the length of each hour. Those who worked with Judge Creighton universally remember him with fondness and gratitude for the burden he helped to bear. One of the ways particularly fitting for an Olympian was his love of coffee—he was a connoisseur of all the local coffee shops—and he didn’t hesitate to spread those joyful tidings. “On exceptionally bad days,” Woodrow remembers, “[Judge Creighton] would get the one who was having the horrible day a huge mocha coffee.” The remarkable feature here of course is that one must recognize that your office mate is suffering though through a difficult day before attempting to remedy it.
His staff did what they could to repay a professional career that so deeply touched and influenced them. After the diagnosis of an illness, Judge Creighton finally decided to withdraw from the bench though it was personally devastating to leave his work that he found so fulfilling, and the people that he had grown so close to over the years. After he retired, as a testament to his character and commitment, his staff continued to keep in touch with him by, among other ways of expressing their love and gratitude, mowing his lawn.
On May 10, 2011, the Olympia city council voted to call its court buildings and offices, the Lee Creighton Justice Center. Mayor Doug Mah extolled Lee Creighton’s “Service, Dedication, and Respect” as reasons that it is fitting that Olympia’s justice center bears his name. In testimony before the council that day, Paul Wohl who followed Lee Creighton as an Olympia city prosecutor remarked: “I’m not sure our community understands the loss. This seems to me to be the perfect way to honor and show that his principles are still with us.”
We cannot attribute a respectful courtroom, a well-functioning probation program, or an efficient administrative department to one individual. The efforts of many are required to bring about these accomplishments. However, it is difficult to miss that some of those individuals become inspirations to others and that influence cascades through successor generations. Judge Creighton touched many individuals in our Olympia government, and the true to the cause of effective leadership they have carried on his legacy. Judge Creighton’s life is unquestionably an example of this.
Our City Manager summarized the historical significance accurately: “Judge Creighton was an important figure in the history of Olympia.” While perhaps counterintuitive to those who have not considered it, history is relentlessly unfolding before our eyes. It is people like Lee Creighton that give us all an opportunity to remark on that fact which further allows us to comprehend a reconcilliation of past and present.
Thus we return to our initial question. In the lives of certain individuals one can see clearly the typically opaque interaction found between the individual and the community. Communities are the individuals who comprise them. The forces, good or bad, that result from that interaction determine the success or failure of the concept of community. After all, no community appears on any map. There are cities and towns, but they become communities only because its individuals sacrifice their individuality for the spirit of their community thanks to the love they have for their fellow human beings. So it is with Lee Creighton.
The city did not name its justice center after Lee Creighton because he was its first elected judge, because he supervised the transition to a full judiciary under the city’s administration, or because he saw to the effective administration of justice. Our community remembers and reveres him because he committed the better part of his individuality to our city; he committed his time and emotional resources to furthering his vision of a community based on mutual respect and quality of life to all of those with whom he came in contact. Some of us talk about these goals, but Lee was able to personify them and the memories of those who knew him attest to that. In that regard, Lee Creighton was as much as a city pioneer as anyone who lived at the city’s founding and it is appropriate to remember him as such; but perhaps his greatest legacy is the lesson his example taught—each of us has the capability to do the same.
[i] In 2010, the Olympia City Council adopted an ordinance now at 12.62.010 which provides that the city will choose to name its public buildngs after “[a]n individual, living or deceased, who has contributed outstanding civic service to the city and, if deceased, has been so for a period of at least one year.”
[ii] The Washington State Bar Association is the licensing authority for all attorneys in the state of Washington.