After 16 1/2 years, Auburn’s City Attorney Dan Heid retired in June. Auburn was the longest jurisdiction Heid served. “I have truly enjoyed my time in Auburn. My work in Auburn was interesting, though often challenging. But I would rather work hard on something I enjoyed than languish with tasks that did not make me feel I am making a difference,” said Heid.
Before Heid’s retirement, we had the privilege of interviewing him to discuss his legal career, time in Auburn and his Naval career. As a Vietnam Veteran, we thought it appropriate to highlight our former city attorney as we observe Veterans Day. Thank you, Dan, and all of Auburn’s veterans for your service to our country.
In the Navy
Auburn Examiner: Did you sign up for the Navy or were you drafted?
Dan Heid: I come from a large family (I’m one of 13 children), and my parents did not have the resources to send any of us to college. But my parents did encourage us to seek a college education or a career that would be able to give us what we need to be self-reliant. I was putting myself through [college] but depleting my savings faster than I was earning money to replenish it. I decided to take a year off from school and save enough to pay for my first four years.
My draft status changed, and I anticipated that I was going to be drafted, prompting me to join the Navy. I was given the impression that in the Navy, one had better opportunities to select different areas one could serve, and I chose to become a Navy corpsman.
At that time in my life, I wanted to be a veterinarian and corpsmen deal with medical issues. As it turned out, I am colorblind (I didn’t know that until after I failed the colorblindness test when first I went into the service) and thus I felt I could not become a veterinarian. All things considered, I’m glad I had the opportunity to become an attorney because I think that is more consistent with my interests and talents. I was fortunate to have been to be able to use the G.I. Bill to get through law school.
AE: How has being a Navy Corpsman changed the way you handle cases and general life matters?
One Veterans’ Vietnam Experience
AE: Why did you volunteer for the First Recon Battalion during the Vietnam War?
AE: You’ve mentioned that going on Med Caps is something you will not forget. How has that impacted your career?
DH: I would describe Med Caps as brief military exercises where a small military force including corpsmen (medics) would go out to remote villages to provide medical services to the civilian population. From my experience in Vietnam, we would go out, a couple corpsmen and a few Marines, to a remote village, giving medical services to people who may never have seen a doctor in their lifetime. Sometimes, they would only need medicines, but other times they would need wounds bandaged or other medical treatments.
The opportunity to go out on Med Caps is something most people who participated in them would never forget; especially when the people we were trying to help have so very little and appreciate so very greatly what help we tried to provide them. It makes me thankful for having been given the opportunity to help people who have such great needs. But it also makes me grateful for the many things we take for granted in this country.
How has it impacted my career? It is an experience that I appreciate, and something that I use to try to keep my life in perspective. But again, it is no different than other areas where I hope I do (hoped I did) what I should – the way it should be done.
A Veterans’ Perspective
AE: Do you feel there is a real change in recognition for the Vietnam soldiers and how they served our country and Vietnam?
DH: I think some people do, now, feel badly for how returning Vietnam veterans were treated. But I do not believe that everybody does. I read an article some time ago about how some anti-war protester was claiming to have helped usher in a new philosophy about society. He was pointing to the anti-war protests as the trigger for this new approach.
When I was coming back from overseas, I flew into Travis Air Force Base (near Sacramento). We were bused from there to San Francisco International Airport, where I would, as with the others on the bus, be redirected to other locations for their next duty station. The officer in charge of the bus warned us that there would be protests. His advice was, ‘do not let them get to you.’
I have to believe that this warning was an indication that the protests were not an unusual occurrence. When I got to the airport, I did see and hear protesters holding signs and yelling (and swearing) at us, serviceman returning from overseas. I will also never forget that one of the most vile, vulgar protesters was a young woman loudly spewing insults and vulgarity at us – while holding a sign that said bring our boys home. I’m sorry, but that struck me as troublesome and ironic. I know that there are people who say that such receptions did not occur. My response; they are wrong.
AE: Auburn has one of the largest Veterans Day Parades west of the Mississippi. What does that mean to you as a Veteran?
DH: The Auburn Veterans Day parade is one of the aspects of Auburn that makes it such a great city. Auburn has its Veterans Park, and Auburn does appreciate its veterans. Having been a veteran of Vietnam where we knew (when we were in Vietnam) of the riots on college campuses, and on public streets back home, protesting the war in Vietnam, I find it comforting to see Auburn appreciating the efforts of those who put their lives at risk in the line of duty in service to our Country.
Working in the Public Sector
AE: You chose to remain in the public sector for your entire career, why?
DH: When I first started my legal career, I didn’t have a clear idea where I wanted to go or where it might take me. If anything, I anticipated that I would probably end up in private practice, doing whatever it is that lawyers do. My first job as a lawyer was as a deputy prosecuting attorney for Lewis County. I liked what I did, working with law enforcement to hold criminal violators accountable. I also appreciated working to support the police who I felt deserved to have their efforts taken seriously. Because I enjoyed what I was doing and felt it was deserving of my efforts, the jobs I later sought in my career followed those themes.
AE: You were the Deputy Prosecutor of Lewis County. What are some differences between being a County and a City attorney?
DH: As a county deputy prosecutor, we prosecuted felonies, while cities prosecute misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors (including domestic violence assaults and DUIs). Those can impact citizens as well and are deserving of attention. Counties also deal with issues from a more regional focus (addressing the needs of unincorporated territory or multiple cities). Cities focus on issues that affect them specifically. Every city has its own personality, its own character and its own issues of importance. City officials strive to address the needs of their unique communities in ways that may not fit the needs of the next community down the road. That’s a challenge but also an opportunity. As the city attorney, I focused on issues relating to my city, even though those issues may differ from issues facing neighboring cities or the county as a whole.
Serving as Auburn’s City Attorney
AE: Why did you choose to come work for Auburn?
DH: After I left the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, I was an assistant city attorney/prosecutor for the City of Chehalis. This was a private office (we were not city employees), but the three attorneys in the office represented five municipalities in Lewis County (Chehalis, Winlock, Napavine, Pe Ell and Vader). That gave me the opportunity to continue prosecuting and working with law enforcement. But [I] but also [had] the opportunity to gain experience working with other departments – public works, planning, and parks.
After a few years in that office, I had the opportunity to serve as the city attorney for some cities in Eastern Washington. From there, as the opportunities presented themselves, I moved to cities of increasing populations. I was the city attorney in Toppenish and Sunnyside, then SeaTac and Lakewood.
In 2001 I had the opportunity to come to Auburn. Although I have been in Auburn longer than anywhere else in my career (16 ½ years), I didn’t just jump from city to city. My tenure in each of my cities was probably an average of seven or eight years. Auburn was, for me, the next logical progression, a bigger city with opportunities to address some of its challenges.
AE: What made you stay in Auburn, ending your long public service career here?
DH: I have truly enjoyed my time in Auburn. I anticipated that when I came here that this might be the jurisdiction from which I would retire. Auburn has a lot of positive things going for it, not only the people with whom I worked at City Hall but also the residents of Auburn. This made working in Auburn, a great career move.
AE: What has been the most rewarding part of being Auburn’s city attorney?
DH: Although there are always going to be those cases which don’t turn out the way you wanted, I have had a lot of successes in court on City of Auburn cases. Working on those cases is rewarding. It is also rewarding to work with city officials in achieving good results for and on behalf of the city. Working in Auburn has been very rewarding in these regards.
The Balancing Act of a City Attorney
AE: What has been the most challenging part of being a city attorney?
DH: If people have the impression that public sector employees don’t work hard, I can only say that this was not my experience or my observation. If I did not have the opportunity to work hard, I would not have enjoyed my work as much. The legal landscape keeps changing. The statutes that were in place when I started my career are markedly different from what they are today. Staying on top of statutes, as well as court decisions, is a constant in the practice of law anywhere.
I have had the good fortune of working with a variety of cities which consciously strived to provide good customer service to their residents. Also, even though there can be controversy or disagreement among the participants in city issues (especially concerning legal matters), I have felt that everybody generally appreciated hard work and effort. And even though not all cases end the way I might have preferred, I can take consolation in the fact that I worked hard and did what I could to help.
I should also mention that as a public-sector attorney, I strived to structure the advice I gave to city officials in terms of not only helping them wade through legal restrictions or limitations but also identifying options where the law allows.
People sometimes ask why the public sector can’t be more like the private sector. The answer is often because the statutes for the public and private sectors are different. Private businesses can do some things that cities cannot. If there is no way that something can be done by a city (even if it could be done by private businesses), I want to make sure that I communicate and explain that limitation. In that regard, even if the advice I give is not what the public official or city employee wanted, I need to give the advice, because if I didn’t say anything, and the situation created some serious problems, I know I would be asked why I didn’t they say something.
AE: How do you balance the criminal side of being a city attorney, and the municipal side of the job?
DH: I don’t see a conflict between criminal responsibilities, and civil municipal responsibilities when acting on behalf of the city. They are different tasks with different aspects. In those settings where I prosecuted and represented the city, I would jump from one task to the other with no hesitation. I enjoyed my work for my city employer involving each of these aspects.
The Impact of Career
AE: Are there any cases that have stuck with you?
DH: Over the years, I have tried hundreds and hundreds of cases, and I have filed many dozens of briefs with the appellate courts of this state and of the United States. I wish I could say I never lost a case, but I can’t. I think I have a good record (many more successes than those that are less successful). But the things that stick with me in my career are the cases where I was able to fight the fight on some cases and feel I made a difference.
AE: Are there any ordinances or resolutions that you have been a part of that you are particularly proud of?
DH: I do not know how many hundreds (maybe thousands) of ordinances and resolutions I have prepared over my career. Every one of them deserves the attention necessary to put them together in a way that meets legal requirements and accomplishes the intended purpose. Particularly with ordinances, that is not a job that is just legal. We may be getting the request for an ordinance from the Mayor, from city staff or from the City Council. Putting the ordinance together may be more challenging in some settings than others. But, again, I have enjoyed this aspect, as all aspects of my job – of my career.
If I were to mention some ordinances that I felt were particularly significant to me, they might include dangerous dog ordinances, which can be challenging for enforcement, but necessary, I believe, to help protect society. An additional ordinance in which I took pride was an ordinance, some years ago, (in another city) addressing “obstructing a law enforcement officer.” I also had some success with ordinances that imposed crime prevention funding.
Reflecting on the Judicial System
AE: What do you believe are some essential qualifications for an attorney?
DH: An attorney must be willing to represent [their] client in a way that accomplishes what the client needs and in a way that meets legal constraints. In that regard, it’s no different for private attorneys than it is for public-sector attorneys, other than the fact that the client is different. An attorney who is unwilling to defend an issue of importance to his or her client may be missing an important qualification for an attorney.
AE: If you could fix one thing about the Judicial system, what would it be?
DH: I don’t know that I can say that the judicial system is broken – needing to be fixed. I do know that there are a lot of different judges who do things in different ways. But that, like so many other things, applies to lots of people with lots of different professions and approaches to their jobs. I believe that most judges try to do the right thing and try to approach their cases with due responsibility. Even though attorneys often disagree among themselves, I also believe that most try to do what they should and take their jobs seriously.
If I were to suggest something in the judicial system might benefit from some adjustment, it might be the number of hearings that are set in prosecution cases. It is, I believe, too easy for criminal defendants to receive continuances. I think that bogs down cases from being adjudicated. I would respectfully submit that if cases can be tried without the delays caused by so many continuances, criminal justice cases could be concluded more expeditiously for both defendants and victims.
Life as a Retired City Attorney
AE: You’ve mentioned that you’ll be traveling to see your family after retirement. Is there anything else you plan to do?
DH: I am a very lucky person. I have a great wife, and we have four wonderful children and lots of tremendous grandchildren. I anticipate that these are going to be the primary focus of my life in retirement. [My wife,] Cheryl, and I may do some traveling to see areas of the world we’ve never seen. But our plans are not defined at this point.
AE: Any parting words of wisdom you’d like to share?
DH: I would think people (especially young people) would benefit from some advice that my dad used to give my siblings and me: “You can become practically anything you want to become if you work at it hard enough.” That is good advice for anyone.
AE: What do you hope you are remembered for when you retire?
DH: I hope people can appreciate that I tried to do what I can to help, where I can.