By Erica C. Barnett
Former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was one of the least transparent in recent memory. The problems included both high-profile events—the deletion of months of text messages requested by reporters seeking insight into the mayor’s decision-making process during protests against police brutality—and systemic issues, like chronic micromanagement that disempowered city department staff.
Many of those changes can be easily undone. Subsequent mayors can adopt better text-retention policies, allow department spokespeople and staff to do their jobs instead of micromanaging them, and create an atmosphere of openness rather than fear and suspicion at City Hall.
One underreported story of the Durkan years that will have lasting consequences for transparency, however, is the administration’s decision to permanently delete the city directory, a vital resource that enabled members of the public to access contact information for city employees directly, and provided information about city departments’ Byzantine bureaucracy.
The directory was the only place ordinary citizens (and members of the press) could access contact information for the approximately 12,000 people who work at the city.
Last summer, it vanished. At the time, the excuse the city provided was that there was an unavoidable IT glitch that somehow rendered the whole directory unstable. The city’s IT department told PubliCola they were working on the problem, and that the directory would be back online by the end of the year.
That never happened. Instead, the city replaced replaced the directory with a list of links to city departments’ websites and media contacts, along with the city’s general-purpose 684-CITY phone number. (Somewhat perversely, the url for this unhelpful list remains seattle.gov/directory, and the headline on the page is “City Employee Directory”).
Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it. Today, we are publishing it.
According to an update posted on the city’s website in mid-December, the city’s Department of Human Resources made a “decision” at some point in 2021 that “the directory would no longer be maintained.” The city also posted an outdated spreadsheet of the directory as it existed in July 2021. “The data in these files is made available “as is” with no guarantee of accuracy,” the update said.
For members of the media, including those outside the mainstream press, a quick call to the right city staffer can eliminate the need to go through gatekeepers who may not have the time or inclination to go dig up the same information. During the Durkan administration, it was not uncommon for departmental spokespeople to respond to a question about, for example, the status of a particular construction project by referring PubliCola to the mayor’s office, who would issue a general statement that did not answer our question. Having access to the person in charge of permitting that project isn’t an academic matter; it’s often the difference between getting information and getting the runaround.
The directory was also useful to members of the general public. Anyone who has called the city’s general phone line, or attempted to contact a city department to get basic information about the status of a permit, for example, knows how difficult and time-consuming it can be to reach a person who can answer your question.
Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it.
Here it is, in two parts—obtained through two separate records requests that, together, provide a more detailed list of contacts than the public directory the Durkan Administration trashed. The first part includes phone numbers and emails, but no department listings, for most city employees (excluding police officers, Seattle Public Library employees, and many employees of the fire department.) The second includes email addresses all city employees, along with their departments, but does not include phone numbers.
I will be updating these databases regularly so that they represent at least as accurate a list of city employees as the deleted city directory, which the city appeared to update every few months.
Although these two databases duplicate the former city directory, representing an accurate contact list for city employees as of January 2022, they do not provide a substitute for true transparency from the city itself, which is ultimately responsible for providing this kind of basic information to residents, as other cities do across the country. Nonetheless, I hope they’ll be useful in restoring some transparency to a city that, under the most recent mayor, steadily chipped away at Seattle residents’ access to their government.