The case of Seattle city officials missing text messages grows even more confounding with the revelation that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office twice rejected funding to improve how the city retains texts, which are public records.
The mishandling of text messages from Durkan and other high-ranking city officials came to light thanks to a whistleblower. Most notably missing are messages from June 2020, when the Capitol Hill Organized Protest was underway. The city could face significant legal jeopardy and fines for those and Durkan’s other missing messages over 10 months from 2019 and 2020. The Seattle Times has filed a lawsuit over the city’s mishandling of reporters’ requests for text messages.
It’s not as if text messages are some new technologies. They’ve been around for decades.
What is clear is that some people in City Hall knew there was a potential problem. At least twice in recent years, city departments asked for money to improve how Seattle retains and archives text messages. Both times, Durkan’s team balked.
For the 2019 budget, the Finance and Administrative Services Department asked for $761,358 to implement a text message retention system. The department also anticipated about $350,000 annually in subsequent years for ongoing costs. That budget request noted just how laughably bad things were. “The current practice includes photocopying device screens page by page,” staff wrote. “Producing text messages in such a manner is unconventional and gives the appearance that the City does not value technology.”
Yes, literally putting phones on photocopiers might give people that impression. Such copies would lose all of the important metadata like who sent a text when. The mayor’s staff nixed the budget request anyway.
A year later, the Information Technology Department asked for $292,722 to develop a retention strategy and solicit bids to implement it by 2022. The mayor’s office again said no.
Even before those requests, there had been warnings at the state level that too many government bodies were not handling their text message with sufficient care. The Washington Coalition for Open Government wrote to the State Attorney General’s Office in 2017 urging creation of model text message retention and archiving rules. It did not gain traction. If it had, perhaps Seattle would have implemented policies that would have prevented the current scandal.
Instead, a mayor who claims that she cares about public records and access to government led a staff that decidedly did not, at least when it came to her texts.