A litany of bad City Hall decisions culminated in Seattle’s countersuit against The Seattle Times over records from 2020’s civil rights protests. Voters should unpack this shameful mishandling of public records to fully hold accountable every leader wasting public money to obstruct honest disclosure.
The situation ought to be straightforward. The city mishandled text messages and other communications about government action, and deleted material that by law is required to go into official records. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s text messages from August 2019 to June 2020 were systematically deleted because of a cellphone setting. The city stonewalled records requests from The Times and other news agencies, and whistle-blowing public records officers claimed they were forced out.
The full story of this tumultuous period of Seattle history must be told, and accountability is in order for the decisions made and the botched record keeping. The right thing to do is for city leaders to take responsibility, fix the structure that allowed this problem to fester and genuinely commit to transparent governance. But Seattle’s top officials have instead chosen bellicosity and obfuscation, not accountability. The city responded to the Times’ lawsuit over these records by aggressively countersuing for costs and legal fees.
City Attorney Pete Holmes is responsible. As an independently elected city official on the ballot this year, Holmes is accountable to the people of Seattle to represent their interests.
Instead, without consulting Durkan, the outside law firm Holmes hired to handle this case is combating the public’s right to know how top officials communicated during heated street protests. Holmes’ office has a $15.6 million 2021 budget to operate a 103-employee civil law division, but he outsourced this combative litigation to Pacifica Law Group for $75,000. He remains resolute in this approach, in defiance of the public interest and his own lip service about transparency over three terms in office.
Without city transparency, the courts must get to the bottom of what happened to the mayor’s texts, the series of slow-walked records requests related to the city’s protest response and every violation of the Public Records Act incurred along the way. The Times’ lawsuit asks for financial penalties allowed under that law. Agencies that receive future open records requests must be shown that noncompliance comes with a price.
But even this falls short of justice if officials who worked to stymie the public interest get off the hook. Durkan is not running for reelection. The city is attempting to reconstruct some records, but much of what she knew and said during volatile days of 2020 may be lost to time. The public has no ballot recourse to express frustration with her actions. Holmes is on the ballot for the Aug. 3 primary, seeking an unprecedented fourth term as city attorney. Voters should add this attempt to chill the free press to the many public-safety reasons Holmes does not deserve reelection. The Times editorial board has endorsed his challenger Ann Davison.
This nasty litigation adds unnecessary complexity to the city’s legal and political consequences for not coming clean about official actions last summer. Federal lawsuits are pending against the city over the shooting death of 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson and the loss of neighborhood access during the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. The city faces potential liability in each if it cannot produce relevant records.
“Who’s punished? The public, because the taxpayers’ dollars are the ones that fund all this stuff,” said public-records attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who has no role in this lawsuit.
Countersuing a newspaper that seeks public records only makes matters worse for the public. Holmes and other officials must stop pursuing fights that dig the city’s hole deeper at the expense of the public interest.