Tag: Public Records Act

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”