Category: public disclosure

A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More

Acting HSD director Jason Johnson and mayoral advisor on homelessness Tess Colby

1. City council member Lisa Herbold struggled Wednesday to get Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson to answer her question about future layoffs from HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division, which is merging with King County’s homelessness division as part of the creation of a new regional homelessness authority. At a meeting of the council’s special committee on homelessness, Herbold asked Johnson repeatedly how many HSI employees would be moving to new offices in the county-owned Yesler Building as part of a temporary “co-location” of city and county staff, and how many are expected to have jobs with the new authority. “I’m hearing a lot of speculation about which positions are going to be eliminated,” Herbold said. “Given that the entire HSI division is being relocated [in March and we aren’t making final decisions about who will stay at the regional authority until much later, is there something happening that we should be aware of?”

Johnson responded first by describing the history that led to the current organizational structure of HSI, then talked at length about the successive organizational structures that will be put in place over the next year. “What is going to occur is colocation in March 2020, then after the hiring of the CEO, we will begin what is termed a loan period where day to day decisions are made by the CEO, but there will also be existing lines of authority back to the city and the county…”

“I’m frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”—Council member Lisa Herbold

His explanation—which did not include an answer to Herbold’s question about layoffs—went on for so long that council member Kshama Sawant jumped in to say that she hoped the council could wrap up talking about the regional authority quickly so that the committee could move on to “the most substantive issue” on the agenda, her proposal to vastly expand tiny house villages in the city, since she had somewhere else to be. (Council member Debora Juarez said that while she appreciated Sawant’s desire to move on to her own item, “I want to point out that we spent 90 minutes on a resolution that we didn’t even pass”—Sawant’s resolution condemning India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act—and “I, for one, want to hear how this is going to get implemented.”)

After the meeting, Herbold told me that she never did get answer to her question: “If the entirety of HSI staff are colocating and layoff decisions aren’t being made final until either a 2020 supplemental or 2021 proposed budget, when exactly between those two points in time will HSI staff learn their jobs are proposed to be eliminated?” Herbold says she was “frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”

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2. Juarez was hardly the only council member casting shade on Sawant’s nonbinding resolution on India, which—along with a resolution opposing war in Iran—took up most of the council’s two-hour-plus regular meeting on Monday. Freshman council member Alex Pedersen said he would propose a resolution condemning all forms of oppression everywhere, just to cover all possible bases. “There’s many disturbing issues going on today for which we do not have resolutions, and my resolution is broad enough to capture instances of oppression that we might be missing,” Pedersen said. “Allow me to ask that we try to not craft a city council council resolution for every horrible thing that our president or any world leader does.”

Pedersen’s resolution, if it ever does see the light of day, is unlikely to find traction among his colleagues, who seemed to consider it a stunt designed to embarrass Sawant. Sawant, for her part, immediately used the proposal as an opportunity to drag her colleagues for lacking the “moral and political courage” to address housing and homelessness. “Passing resolutions is not the barrier. The barrier is lack of courage,” she said.

3. Tomorrow afternoon, Beyonce St. James—the formerly homeless drag artist who spoke and performed at All Home King County’s annual conference last year—will appear in court to seek an injunction against the release of public records that include her legal name and other identifying information. I received a notice of the hearing because I requested St. James’ invoice for the event, for which she charged $500. (Attendees reported that they were told St. James was volunteering her time and performing for tips; video of the event shows attendees tossing and handing her cash.) St. James (not her legal name) is asking that all her personal information be kept private because she has already been threatened and harassed over her performance and fears further harassment if her address and other details are made public.

Continue reading “A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More”

Unredacted Documents Reveal Initial Megablock Proposal Was for Ground Lease, Not Sale

A newly unredacted version of Alexandria Real Estate’s initial proposal for the Mercer Megablock shows that the winning bidder to buy the three-property parcel initially proposed a ground lease—not a sale—that would have included a $31 million initial payment, followed by annual rent payments that would have started at $2.6 million a year. Renting the land out under a long-term ground lease would have kept the 3-acre parcel in public ownership, but could have been less lucrative for the city, which ultimately sold the land to Alexandria outright for $138 million, plus a $5 million payment for future homelessness programs.

The original request for proposals for the site made it clear that the city “has a strong preference to structure the transaction for the site as an unsubordinated long-term ground lease” but would consider a sale. “The value differential that we saw was really, really large between what was being offered on the lease relative to the cash up front,” city budget director Ben Noble says.

Alexandria’s initial proposal estimated the net present value of a ground lease—that is, the amount those annual payments would be worth in 2019 dollars by the end of the lease term—at $69 million, for a total value along with the initial payment of $100 million. This was a bit more than Alexandria’s initial proposal to buy the land outright for about $98 million. Since Alexandria’s offer to buy increased nearly 40 percent, however, it seems likely that their best and final offer for a ground lease would have increased, too, raising the total value of the bid to a level similar to what the city will get from the sale. It’s unclear whether Alexandria’s best and final offer included a ground lease option; I’ve requested a copy of this offer from the city.

Alexandria’s unredacted proposal, which is being published here for the first time, includes a number of details that have not been previously known about the real-estate firm’s plans for the three megablock properties.

The document Alexandria originally provided to the city included extensive redactions that concealed all of the information about the ground lease proposal. The company also blacked out details about what will go in the planned commercial space (including a business incubator and conference center), the address of a project in San Francisco that the company is currently building (88 Bluxome), the amount of open space that’s included in an Alexandria project in Cambridge (2.2 acres), and the height of each floor in its proposed life sciences buildings (13 feet).

My request for the documents, filed on August 7, led to a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the mayor’s office, which responded to my questions selectively and incompletely. (I still have several unanswered questions, for example, about the way the mayor’s office handled both Alexandria’s “proposed redactions” and my request.) Initially, the city informed me that if I wanted the unredacted documents, the mayor’s office would exercise their discretionary option to inform Alexandria so that the company could seek an injunction to keep them secret, exposing me to the potential for “lengthy litigation.”

The project will include 730 parking spaces—more parking than most of the other proposals, except for one (from Touchstone) which called for a massive underground parking lot for 1,000 cars. Tishman Speyer’s proposal included just 50 parking spots.

The city did not respond to followup questions. Instead, more than two weeks after I made my initial request, the budget office informed me that an email from me that included the phrase, “I am interested in seeing the materials redacted in Alexandria’s proposal,” followed by a list of questions asking what the implications would be if I did make a formal request for the redacted information, constituted a formal request that would trigger the third-party notice to Alexandria. Continue reading “Unredacted Documents Reveal Initial Megablock Proposal Was for Ground Lease, Not Sale”

Homeless Pilot Project Scuttled: Why Did Durkan Discard Months of Work by Her Own Human Services Department?

According to All Home King County, the number of people living in vehicles jumped 46% between 2017 and 2018.

The city of Seattle has rejected my appeal of its decision to heavily redact a set of documents about a plan—which Mayor Jenny Durkan formally scuttled around March 6—to open a safe parking lot for people living in their vehicles at Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract with the city to operate the lot.

In its letter rejecting my request to see the unredacted discussion about the proposal, the city argued that because “a decision has not been made as to the siting of the potential Safe Parking Pilot program” in general, they have the right (under the “deliberative process” exemption to the state public disclosure act) to withhold the information I requested about the specific proposal the city rejected until they make a decision on whether to move forward with a safe lot at a different location. The redacted information includes a flyer, lists of media contacts, and a communications and outreach plan for the Genesee Park location, which the city is arguing are all part of the “deliberative process” that could eventually lead to a safe parking pilot somewhere else.

If the city never does announce a formal decision, they could refuse to disclose this information to the public indefinitely.

I’ve asked the state attorney general’s office, which deals with potential public records act violations, to take another look at the city’s exemption claims. In my letter, I wrote that the city’s position—that they don’t have to reveal any materials related to the rejected Genesee Park location until and unless they choose a different site for a safe parking lot in the future—leads to “the absurd conclusion that if the mayor’s office and HSD simply never make a formal, declared decision, they can withhold this information from the public forever.”

“By claiming such a broad and sweeping exemption, they are concealing information of value to the public and preventing Seattle residents from having a clear picture of why they made this decision,” I wrote.

I requested information about the process that led to the city choosing, then rejecting, the Genesee Park location for a safe vehicular residency lot, in part, because Durkan’s decision seemed abrupt. The opening date for a safe lot for vehicular residents, which had already been moved back at least twice (from January 1, to January 31, to February 28) was imminent when the first local TV news report that Genesee appeared to be the city’s preferred location hit airwaves on February 25. Pushback on the proposal, led by longtime South End gadfly (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami, was instant and harsh. The mayor’s response was similarly swift—by March 6, she had canceled LIHI’s permit. That same day, her office sent a letter to community members and local media saying that the mayor had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27.

Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

Given that Durkan tends to be hands-on about both minor and major decisions that come out of her office—particularly decisions that are certain to be controversial, like stopping the downtown streetcar or opening a safe parking lot in a residential neighborhood— seemed implausible that she had never been informed of the safe parking-lot options until right before it was set to open. If HSD had somehow kept all the details of the safe lot proposal away from Durkan’s desk for months while the details of the proposal were being hammered out, then finalized, that would be newsworthy. Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.

The documents I received from the mayor’s office, HSD, and the Department of Neighborhoods make it clear that the mayor’s top staff—including Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, David Moseley, and her top homelessness advisor, Tess Colby—were well aware of plans to open a safe parking lot at one of three locations in South Seattle—Pritchard Beach, the Amy Yee Tennis Center, or Genesee Park—long before February 27. Officials with the Human Services Department began discussing where to site a safe lot as far back as October of last year, and by late January, emails confirm, Colby was pulling together information about the proposal for the mayor’s binder—a set of documents staff puts together for the mayor herself to take home and review.

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The day that Durkan apparently received these briefing materials, January 28, was also the day when Department of Neighborhoods advisor Tom Van Bronkhorst sent an urgent email with the subject line “IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED” to several of his colleagues at HSD, saying that he had just received an email from Pat Murakami—a Southeast Seattle  neighborhood activist who is currently running for City Council—asking detailed questions that indicated she was aware of the three potential locations. Murakami, Van Bronkhorst wrote, “is writing an email to her list that will go out this afternoon asking for their comments on the proposed locations. Someone should give her a call with an update, more information or a request to wait for 24 hours?” Within an hour, HSD communications staffer Lily Rehrmann had responded, and within two hours, she sent a memo about her conversation with Murakami—the details of which are largely blacked out in the documents provided by the city.

On February 1, Rehrmann emailed Van Bronkhorst seeking a list of neighborhood groups near Genesee Park, which she said she needed “for the comms plan for the safe parking pilot per the Mayor’s office.” That plan went out to the mayor’s office, including Colby and the mayor’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, on February 7. That same day, the mayor’s office responded to at least one constituent about the Genesee parking lot. On February 21, HSD interim director Jason Johnson sent a message to Deputy Mayor David Moseley—Durkan’s second-in-command, and her deputy in charge of homelessness—that also included the full outreach and communications plan. (The city provided a mostly redacted copy of this document, one page of which is reproduced below).

If the mayor received briefing materials about the safe lot plan in her binder on January 28, as planned, that means a month passed between the first time she was handed details about the proposal and the date when she said she received her very first briefing on the plan, after which she decided to cancel LIHI’s contract.

In the March 6 letter to community and media stating that she was first briefed on the proposal on February 27, Durkan’s office wrote that “[w]hile there was an initial recommendation of potential sites by City departments prepared for the Mayor, Mayor Durkan felt strongly about the need to evaluate multiple options, and to do meaningful community engagement. While a permit application was initially filed and discussion of various sites did occur before reaching the Mayor, the Mayor has made clear that the City would not move forward on a selecting a site without evaluating alternatives and without meaningful community engagement.”

Let’s consider the first potential scenario—that the mayor was aware of the Genesee Park proposal before February 27, but acted swiftly to kill the plan after her briefing. What might have changed? One thing that definitely happened between late January and late February is that Murakami mobilized, contacting the Human Services Department again on February 26, a message documented in an email from an HSD planning and development specialist telling Rehrmann to call Murakami back to answer her questions. Murakami also scheduled a public meeting of her group, the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, on March 6, the same day Durkan’s office announced that the city had canceled LIHI’s contract. (That meeting did take place, and was by all accounts a shit show.)

HSD, and the mayor’s office, were probably eager to get out in front of that meeting. However, there is something off-putting about their almost frantic response to Murakami, whose work as an activist has mostly involved fighting against affordable housing (and a day-labor center) in Mount Baker and who has a history of making outrageous statements about people of color and the danger of riding transit in the South End after dark.

In response to a list of questions about what Durkan knew about the safe parking pilot and when, the mayor’s office reiterated that the safe parking lot options didn’t land directly on Durkan’s desk until late February, but said that her policy staff were aware of the discussion. “Our policy team and dozens of departments work to prep ahead of briefings with the Mayor and so we can develop recommendations before a topic goes to her,” mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said. “That happened and in late February, the Mayor, HSD, MO, SPD and DON sat down with the Mayor for an hour so she could be briefed on the issue and make a decision on the next steps. The Mayor asked at the briefing for the City to do additional outreach.”

Given the practical realities of running the mayor’s office, this scenario isn’t out of the question: The mayor’s Human Services Department and Department of Neighborhoods worked for months crafting a safe parking lot proposal, with the knowledge of the mayor’s staff, and the mayor herself only became aware of the details right before the proposal was ready to launch. However, if this second version is accurate, it means that Durkan spent an hour or so looking at the proposal that had taken her departments (with buy-in from her HSD director and deputy mayor) months to craft, considered the PR ramifications of opening a safe lot that was unpopular with at least one group of neighborhood activists, and abruptly killed the project.

The mayor’s stated reason for stopping the safe lot—the need for extensive outreach to neighborhoods—does not appear to have led to any action: So far, it does not appear that any additional outreach has occurred. Asked about a series of outreach meetings that had been scheduled for March, Meg Olberding, an HSD spokeswoman, said that it would be premature to start the outreach process now. The mayor, Olberding said,  “has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City.  The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun.”

Durkan’s Public Disclosure Practices Raise Concerns About Transparency

I highly recommend reading Lewis Kamb’s story in the Seattle Times this weekend, about how Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staffers used private Gmail accounts to craft a deal to overturn the employee hours tax, and then failed to disclose those emails in response to a Times records request.  As Kamb reports, the emails came to light as part of a lawsuit by open government activists seeking to prove that Durkan’s office and the city council tried to subvert the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by “secretly predetermining the outcome of the June 12 repeal vote,” as Kamb put it, which overturned a tax that Durkan had previously supported (after private conversations with Amazon and other business leaders who apparently assured the mayor they would not oppose the tax).

The revelations are alarming not only because they reveal Durkan’s propensity for doing city business in private (her office contends that the Gmail conversations about the council’s upcoming vote on the tax were “private political discussions,” according to Kamb, and provided them with the Gmail records as a “courtesy”), but because it took a lawsuit to make the emails sent from private accounts public. (The Times received a separate cache of emails that the mayor’s office initially withheld after the Times appealed the closure of the request, “believing not all responsive records had been turned over,” according to Kamb’s story). In other words: The mayor’s office closed the Times‘ records request without releasing many of the records that they should have provided. They only provided some of those records after the Times appealed. And they handed over the remainder of the documents—the ones sent from private Gmail accounts—in response to a lawsuit by a third party.

I had a similar experience with the mayor’s office recently, one that—while it didn’t directly involve emails sent from staffers’ personal accounts—did raise similar, troubling questions about the Durkan administration’s commitment to public disclosure and transparency. Back in August, I filed a request seeking all emails from the mayor’s communications staff that included sample social media posts—pre-written Facebook posts and tweets that supporters are supposed to cut and paste and present as their own—about a list of 19 specific events. I also asked for a list of every bcc’d recipient for these emails, as well as any emails sent from mayoral staffers’ personal accounts.

The mayor’s office responded, on October 12, by sending me multiple copies of a single document, sent from mayoral spokesman Mark Prentice’s official government account to about 200 people: An email offering sample social media posts supporting the creation of the mayor’s Innovation Advisory Council. Mayoral public disclosure officer Stacy Irwin then closed my request, without providing a single document about the other 18 events I had listed. The fact that the mayor’s office only provided emails for one event on the list I provided would have raised eyebrows on its own, but I also happened to already have copies of some of the emails I requested,  so I knew they hadn’t fulfilled my request. That same day, I requested the rest of the documents. For ten days, I got no response. On October 22, I emailed again, and finally heard back from Prentice that night. “I’m working on rounding up my emails and sending to you as attachments if that works – I can get those to you by the end of the week,” he wrote. The next day, I asked Prentice again for an explanation of why the mayor’s office had closed my request, but I never got a response. On November 5, I  emailed Prentice, his boss, Stephanie Formas, deputy mayors Shefali Ranganathan and Mike Fong, and Irwin, the following:

After several weeks of asking (documented in my previous email to you, from last week) I STILL have not heard back on why my request was shut down with only some relevant records provided. …The reason I consider this total lack of response from the mayor’s office serious is that closing a request without explanation—and without providing all the responsive records—is a potential violation of state public records law. It’s not just the principle of the thing; it’s the thing (complying with the law) itself.

A series of back-and-forth emails followed, in which the mayor’s office said repeatedly that it was working to provide the documents I requested (my request was never, to my knowledge, formally reopened), and blamed “some confusion on the email accounts that I searched in order to fulfill your request” for the fact that I only got records about one of the 19 events. But when the rest of the documents did come through, it turned out that most of them originated from the same email as the first batch—Prentice’s official government address—which makes this explanation (that they hadn’t searched the right accounts) dubious. I asked several more times, via phone and email, for an explanation. To date, I still have not received one. Note: At Prentice’s request, I have redacted his and Formas’ gmail addresses and Prentice’s phone number from the documents. I removed this information, which is public (and disclosable), as a courtesy.

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Kamb’s story made me realize that I wasn’t the first reporter who had been stonewalled by the mayor’s office on a records request (although his, which concerned private negotiations about a matter of huge public interest, was obviously of more import than the mayor’s social media strategy.) It also made me wonder if, in addition to withholding records that were indisputably public, the mayor’s office had initially withheld any private emails from me. In 26 pages of emails the office eventually provided me last month, there was one such email—sent from Prentice’s Gmail and forwarded to his official account, apparently for record-keeping purposes. However, it’s impossible to know whether more such private emails exist. All I can say for certain is that the mayor’s office didn’t provide any.

This is true in general, too: I have no way of knowing if the mayor’s office actually provided all the outgoing emails that I requested, including the ones from official addresses. (I do know that they did not provide the bcc lists I requested for the emails they did send, because none of the additional emails includes any information about who they went out to. To that extent, at least, the mayor’s office still has not fulfilled my request.) This is a problem that extends beyond me, and beyond this specific request. I happened to already have some of the emails I should have been provided at the very beginning, which is how I knew the mayor’s office had closed my request without handing over what I asked for. What if I hadn’t? What if I had just accepted that the one email they provided, along with the list of recipients, was the only document that was responsive to my request? What if I had been an ordinary citizen rather than a reporter with decades of experience filing public disclosure requests? What if I had had every resource, including a team of attorneys and supportive editors, and the mayor’s office just didn’t hand them over? That’s the situation the Times was in, and, in a way, still is. Durkan’s office has admitted no wrongdoing in their initial refusal to provide all the records Kamb requested, and still say that they provided the latest batch as a “courtesy,” not an obligation. This should concern anyone invested in transparency in local government, which is to say, everyone.

Mayoral staffers’ use of private emails is just a small part of the broader issues I described above, but it’s worth noting that mayoral staffers are hardly the only city employees doing city-related business with private email accounts.  As I have reported, city council member Kshama Sawant and her staff routinely use private Gmail accounts (both custom “[firstname]atcouncil@gmail.com” accounts and their own personal emails) to conduct city business, such as the recent “Save the Showbox” legislation. Because city public disclosure officers can’t access city employees’ private email accounts directly, any disclosure of private emails happens, essentially, on the honor system. It doesn’t require any particular paranoia to believe that public officials sometimes use private emails (or Facebook messages, or encrypted, message-erasing apps like Signal) to skirt disclosure laws. All you have to do is look back to the time when elected officials in Seattle first started to use text messages, but never turned them over in response to records requests, citing the technological difficulty of finding messages they had deleted. Or, for that matter, to the existing practices of the current mayor’s office.