Seattle city leaders made significant promises to settle a lawsuit over deleted text messages from the phones of Mayor Jenny Durkan, then-Police Chief Carmen Best and other city officials. Those promises about record-keeping must function as ironclad commitments that the city will provide meaningful transparency, not an arbitrary runaround, when government communications are requested. 

Taxpayers’ funds — not any public official’s bank account — will have to surrender the $199,855 city settlement over more than 2,000 text messages deleted from city officials’ phones, as well as other records The Seattle Times requested, then sued to get. Still more public money will be spent improving the city’s records-retention practices and training all officials about the importance of full compliance with transparency laws. This must become an investment in better practices, not resources tossed into the wind.

The failure to provide complete records after the summer of 2020’s protests unfolded left a void in the public understanding of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone and related events. The most remarkable gaping hole were the messages deleted from the cellphones of Durkan and Best, some of which were later recovered. Durkan has said the deletions were inadvertent and not intentional.

This must never happen again. Events that spiraled out from these protests included fatal shootings, the abandonment of a police precinct and tear-gassing of citizen protesters. Seattle is still struggling to restore adequate police response levels after a City Council majority, swayed by protesters’ demands for social justice, committed to defunding police and undermined Best’s authority, prompting her to quit. 

Without all important evidence from that difficult period, the public — and city government — are not able to fully comprehend what should have gone better, and learn from missteps. That’s a higher cost to the public than even a six-figure cash penalty. 

The settlement’s corrective measures must be implemented in good faith. Public employees need to accept the importance of conducting city business on government devices, not their personal phones, and of being responsive, not dilatory, when records are requested. Construction of a “commonly requested records” website section, promised in the settlement, can be a helpful step in this process to normalize what ought to be standard practice for government work. An easily accessed portal to wage and policing data will demonstrate how state open records law requires professional transparency about public service, a meaningful improvement other governments should emulate. 

The city’s transparency failures, which happened on multiple levels around summer 2020 protests, must never be repeated. City officials in every agency, including the mayor’s office, must embrace the new standard of public openness the settlement maps out. That can happen if the city embraces the lawsuit settlement’s terms as necessary reforms to prevent future lapses.