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.
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]firstname.lastname@example.org” 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.