Category: public disclosure

Evening Fizz: County Picks New Oversight Director, Report Recommends Shifting Half of 911 Calls Away from Cops, City Directory Disappears

1. The Metropolitan King County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to appoint Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator with Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, to serve as the next permanent director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which oversees the King County Sheriff’s Office. The sole vote against Abouzeid’s appointment was from Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn.

Abouzeid was one of two finalists for the position; the other candidate, Eddie Aubrey, is the head of the oversight office for the Richmond, California police department. During his interview last week, Abouzeid described an eight-year plan to develop OLEO’s role as a “mini-think tank” on police reform and oversight, as well as a player in the county’s negotiations with law enforcement unions; at a previous community meeting, Abouzaid also expressed support for future state legislation that would restrict counties from adopting law enforcement union contracts that limit oversight.

Currently, Abouzeid works as a civil rights attorney with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois state senate in 2020, though he withdrew before the Democratic Party primary.

Current interim OLEO Director Adrienne Wat has led the office since last fall, when the council narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, after an independent investigation found Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to her staff during her four-year tenure.

Both Jacobs and King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez later alleged that her ouster was partially engineered by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. According to Mansanarez, the sheriff attempted to persuade Mansanarez’s union—which represents most sworn employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office—to agree to wear body-worn video cameras in exchange for removing Jacobs, who often clashed with both Johanknecht and the union. Johanknecht denies the allegations.

OLEO’s first director, Charles Gaither, also left the office in 2014 after conflicts with then-sheriff John Urquhart. Following his departure, Gaither received a $84,500 settlement from the county after alleging that sheriff’s office staff harassed him based on his race. Jacobs also filed a discrimination claim against the county after her departure last fall; that litigation is ongoing.

Abouzeid will take over in September, only months before the county’s contract with the KCPOG expires and before the sheriff becomes an appointed position—a shift that will almost certainly bring a new sheriff into office.

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2. A team of city employees assembled by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last September presented a report to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that proposed shifting up to 12 percent of the calls for service currently handled by the Seattle Police Department to other responders in the near future—roughly 48,000 calls a year, or six percent of SPD’s officer hours.

Mayoral staffer Chrissie Grover-Roybal told the council that a portion of the calls 911 dispatchers can shift to non-police responders in the short term are so-called “person down” calls, which involve someone who is either asleep or unconscious in public, and other low-level welfare checks that present relatively little risk to the responders. Last Friday, Durkan appeared alongside council member Lisa Herbold and the heads of the city’s public safety agencies to announce a proposal to create a new unit to handle those low-acuity crisis calls—a new Fire Department unit tentatively called “Triage One,” which could call for backup from other responders as needed. 

But on Tuesday, Herbold pointed out that Triage One, as currently proposed, would only handle a small fraction of the 48,000 calls that the team concluded do not require a police response. Julie Kline, the mayor’s senior public safety advisor, responded that the Triage One proposal will only be an early step in shifting low-level 911 calls away from police.

In the long term, the report suggests that alternative, non-police responders could eventually handle as many as half the calls to which police currently respond.

The team’s estimates relied heavily on an analysis of SPD’s calls for service by the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). Researchers from the NICJR pointed to nearly 200 call types that could be low-acuity enough not to merit a police response; in their report, however, the interdepartmental team only proposed shifting 28 of those call types to non-police responders in the near future.

The team cast the proposals as an opportunity to transfer a portion of SPD’s workload to accommodate a smaller number of officers available to respond to emergency calls: since June 2020, more than 250 sworn officers have left SPD. “Offloading some of our service hours begins to make up for the people we’ve lost,” said Chris Fisher, SPD’s chief strategy officer.

3. The city of Seattle’s IT department quietly eliminated the online directory of city staffers that was the only place where members of the public (and journalists) could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city. The public-facing directory was replaced last week with a 404 error page; it has since been updated with links to contact spokespeople for various departments, as well as the generic public-facing pages for each department. However, anyone who wants to contact a city staffer who is not a designated point of contact for the department won’t find that information on seattle.gov.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office provided a statement from the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer, Jim Loter, who said the directory had to be taken down “because the underlying application code, database, and server were beyond ‘end-of-life’ and could no longer be supported, secured, or maintained at current levels.” Loter said the city is currently working on a replacement system and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year.

“This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution,” Loter said, adding, “I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City. However, I assure you that the change was made solely due to operational reasons and not to intentionally obfuscate public information.”

Even if all goes smoothly and the city restores the directory before the end of the year (a big if), that will still mean almost half a year in which ordinary citizens and journalists lack access to this basic public information. No one should have to file a public records request—or convince a gatekeeper—to find out how to contact the right person at the city.

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

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A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”

Participatory Budgeting Moves Forward, Diaz Says He Supports Alternatives to Policing, Durkan’s Office Denies Withholding Texts

1. A Tuesday city council committee meeting revealed new details about the next steps toward launching a participatory budgeting program in 2022.

The road to participatory budgeting, which the council intended as a tool to direct city dollars away from SPD and toward upstream public safety investments and alternatives to policing, has been mired by delays and ethical concerns—including an ongoing investigation by the state auditor’s office into how the council awarded a related $3 million research contract to one of the activist groups that lobbied for participatory budgeting during the summer of 2020.

Though the council initially hoped that Seattle-area residents would be able to submit and vote on project proposals this spring, Councilmember Tammy Morales told PubliCola last week that the council now expects that the scaffolding for participatory budgeting will be in place by the end of 2021 at the earliest, with voting delayed until 2022.

On Tuesday, a member of the council’s central staff presented the committee with proposed legislation that would move the city closer to launching participatory budgeting, though the plan does not fully clear up uncertainty about who will administer the program.

The proposed legislation would partially lift a proviso that the council imposed last year on nearly $30 million in the city’s general fund to free up roughly $17 million to cover the costs of administering the participatory budgeting program and to pay for the winning, community-generated projects. It would also provide $1 million to pay staffers at the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and community members to conduct a search for an organization that will set up the program and shape proposals into workable city programs.

The same organization will also spearhead efforts to increase participation by distributing WiFi hotspots, paying for translators and offering transportation to planning meetings. Morales’ office did not directly respond to PubliCola’s questions about whether Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit that ran the months-long research process that was billed as the first stage of participatory budgeting, would be eligible to lead the participatory budgeting process itself.

To prevent any loss of text/iMessages of any City employee, the CAO, IT, and the Mayor’s Office are piloting a third-party vendor that will allow for automatic cloud-based data collection and make production of records more efficient. Beginning in March 2021, this pilot currently has 5 participants in the Mayor’s Office.—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

2. As Seattle’s major media expressed (justified) outrage that Mayor Jenny Durkan had deleted 10 months of text messages last year, PubliCola was surprised to learn that the mayor had provided text messages to other media at all. In Durkan’s last three years in office, PubliCola has filed more than 20 records requests for text messages and other forms of communication from Durkan and her staff; in all that time, we’ve never received a single text from Durkan’s phone, and have only received texts from staff on two occasions. In some instances, we were able to go back through our own text exchanges with Durkan staffers and find texts that would have been responsive to our requests, but which the mayor’s office did not produce.

Last week, we asked the mayor’s office why they had apparently not produced texts that would have been responsive to our requests; then, when they didn’t respond, we asked again. Here’s an excerpt of what the mayor’s communications director, Anthony Derrick, said in response; his full response is included after the jump.

I want to push back against your suggestion that Mayor’s office staffers do not search their phones for responsive messages. Staff have on several occasions taken screenshots of text messages and sent them over to Public Disclosure Officers to include in a records request. […]

Public Disclosure Officers are empowered with a number of technological tools to search and pull responsive records from email, documents, text messages/iMessages, social media, and all other communication methods in order to deliver those records to the requester.

    • Emails: Public disclosure officers have access to all e-mails.
    • Text Messages/iMessages: It is standard practice Citywide – for PDOs to provide notice to individuals who may have text messages so they can conduct a search of their own devices to provide any responsive messages. Employees would respond with screenshots of text messages.[…] To prevent any loss of text/iMessages of any City employee, the CAO, IT, and the Mayor’s Office are piloting a third-party vendor that will allow for automatic cloud-based data collection and make production of records more efficient. Beginning in March 2021, this pilot currently has 5 participants in the Mayor’s Office. It costs approximately $50,000 for every 150 phones.
    • Chats: Speaking directly to your question about records involving internal messaging tools, the Mayor’s Office has used two separate applications, Skype messaging (prior to 2020) and Teams (implemented in 2020). Skype chats were automatically logged to email, and should have turned up in any standard public records search. Teams messages are archived, and would be produced by individuals in accordance with public records requests.

I also want to reiterate that, as previously stated, the Mayor believed and had assumed at all times that all her text messages, calendar, and emails were available to anyone through the Public Records Act and would be quickly and fully produced. The report reflects that commitment and the extensive efforts to disclose any thousands of copies of messages that were lost due to an unknown technology issue.

The report to which Derrick is referring, by an independent public disclosure expert, found that Durkan and her office had not only attempted to “recreate” the mayor’s texts by obtaining messages from the people on the other end of her conversations (without telling requesters that is what they were doing), but that Durkan’s lawyer directed public disclosure officers to interpret requests narrowly, so that any request for messages from mayoral staff automatically excluded the mayor herself.

“When there’s a shooting, we can’t go to every RV and try to develop relationships ourselves, because we just don’t have the time. But there are people who already do that work, and we need them.”—Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz

3. In his conversation with PubliCola last week, Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz reiterated his support for shifting substantial portions of police officers’ workloads to new, community-led programs or civilian departments. “Do I need officers involved in policing homelessness? Really, honestly, I don’t believe we do,” he said. To respond to shootings and other violence within encampments—like the shooting in an RV in Ballard on April 25 that injured two people—Diaz suggested that SPD would benefit from a stronger network of conflict prevention or intervention teams made up of people who have experienced homelessness. “When there’s a shooting, we can’t go to every RV and try to develop relationships ourselves, because we just don’t have the time. But there are people who already do that work, and we need them.”

From Diaz’s perspective, one of the keys for reducing police responsibilities of police will be expanding the number of service providers available around the clock. “We’ve been one of the few services during COVID that’s been responding to calls for service in the middle of the night,” he said. “So when someone is in crisis at two in the morning on 3rd Avenue, unfortunately, that comes to us. Our highest call loads come in after hours.” Using city dollars to hire mental health counselors and nurses to field crisis calls after-hours, he said, “could really reduce the number of calls for service we handle.”

But where will those dollars come from? Not from SPD’s budget, Diaz said—at least for the time being. Instead, he said, any 24-hour civilian crisis response program the city creates needs to prove its effectiveness before SPD’s budget and staffing shrink further.

Continue reading “Participatory Budgeting Moves Forward, Diaz Says He Supports Alternatives to Policing, Durkan’s Office Denies Withholding Texts”

County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions

1. In his State of the County address Tuesday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county would purchase the Inn at Queen Anne, which has been serving as a temporary shelter operated by Catholic Community Services since April of last year.

The 80-room hotel, which CCS will continue to operate, will cost the county $16.5 million; the money will come from the new “health through housing” sales tax that the county council passed—with some notable abstentions from suburban cities—late last year. The county plans to purchase “several more properties in several more cities … in the coming weeks,” Constantine said in his address.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction.

In an interview yesterday, Constantine said he saw the hotels as “stops on the way to permanent supportive housing or independent housing, including affordable housing—places where you could live for a while and stabilize and take advantage of services.” Traditional, congregate shelters, including “enhanced shelters” like Seattle’s Navigation Center, don’t offer the kind of privacy and stability hotel rooms provide; “the difference between being able to come inside for the night and having a place of your own with a lock on the door seems to be everything,” Constantine said.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction. Between now and June, Seattle plans to close down a temporary shelter at Exhibition Hall and relocate the people living there into shelters whose populations were “redistributed” last year, including the Navigation Center. After resisting calls to move Seattle’s homeless population into hotel-based shelters, the city finally rented about 200 hotel rooms this spring—a temporary solution (the rooms will be occupied for 10 months) and one that represents a fraction of the need. At the same time, Seattle is ramping up homeless encampment sweeps.

Asked about the apparent contrast between the county’s approach and Seattle’s, Constantine said, “first off, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If people need a place to be inside at night, we have to figure out a way to make that happen.” However, he added, “If you’re going to move people out of an encampment, at a bare minimum, you can’t just chase people from one street corner to another or one park to another. That is tremendously unhelpful.”

Constantine is up for reelection this year; his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, told PubliCola he supports the regional homelessness authority that the county is setting up but thinks the county has failed forge partnerships with the leaders of cities within the county.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

2. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) asked its members to participate in signature-gathering events for the Recall Sawant campaign over the weekend, according to an email from SPOG leadership.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

Recall Sawant campaign manager Henry Bridger II told SPOG members in the email that their presence would help “beef up” an otherwise meager group of volunteers. “Our goal is to have about 40+ people each day and we have about 15 right now and many probably won’t show for fear of retaliation,” he wrote, warning that “Sawant’s people will be there in mass [sic] to interfere.”

“We are just wanting to have plain-clothed volunteers to help hold signs and gather signatures so we look like we have a lot of coverage,” Bridger added. He also asked officers to bring their family and friends to boost turnout.

SPOG’s push for turnout seems to have fizzled: Twitter chatter about campaign volunteers at the intersection of Broadway and Denny suggests that few recall supporters showed up at the campaign event.

3. On Monday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission held a brief discussion on a report that prompted outrage from major-media outlets last week because it revealed that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had failed to produce many of her text message in response to records requests in 2020.

Specifically, the report—produced by independent public disclosure expert Ramsey Ramerman in response to a whistleblower complaint by two longtime mayoral public disclosure officers—found that 10 months of Durkan’s texts were missing, and that the mayor’s office had routinely excluded Durkan’s texts from requests for text messages from mayoral staff, on the grounds that the requests didn’t explicitly include the mayor.

The report, posted on the city’s website last week, was a bombshell, but it seemed to hit major media outlets somewhat differently than it hit us at PubliCola, for a simple reason: While we have filed dozens of records requests for text messages and other forms of communication, such as messages on internal City messaging systems, during the Durkan administration, we have routinely received only emails in response—a fact that suggests Durkan and her entire staff don’t use text messages, internal communications systems, or any other form of written communication other than email at all.

Since we know this is not the case (in fact, a quick text history search found a number of messages that would have been responsive to some of our requests), the only conclusion we can reach is that the mayor’s office did not provide records that would have been responsive to our requests, despite having the ability to do so and despite apparently filling other media outlets’ requests for text messages and other forms of communication. (A full list of PubliCola’s records requests to the mayor’s office since August 2018 is available here.) Continue reading “County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions”

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.