The bungling and cover-up in the case of lost text messages sent by Seattle’s mayor and other city officials would be comical if it weren’t so serious.
The story, at least as far as the city is willing to admit, is that for 10 months from 2019 to 2020 at least one of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s city-issued cellphones was improperly configured. It saved texts for only 30 days instead of archiving them.
Under Washington’s Public Records Act, those texts are public records that must be preserved. When the mayor conducts official business and creates documents — including text messages — the public, historians and the press have the right to review them. Such transparency promotes honesty and good government.
The violation might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that the period of missing messages included June 2020, when social-justice protests, violence and the takeover of several blocks of Capitol Hill shook the city.
Interest in the official conversations that took place around those events is high as the aftershocks still inform civic debate. There are lawsuits, too, such as one filed by the mother of a 19-year-old shot and mortally wounded across the street from Cal Anderson Park. The missing text messages could prove costly to taxpayers in court.
Messages sent during the same period by several other officials, including the police and fire chiefs’, also are missing.
There’s plenty of finger-pointing. Durkan insists it wasn’t her fault. She thought the messages were being saved. The city’s information technology department, which provided the phones to her, insists it would have set them up properly.
Someone messed up big time, or someone is lying. Certainly someone tried to cover it up.
The city knew there was a problem in August, but it tried to hide the truth from the public. After investigating, the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission concluded that Durkan’s legal counsel, Michelle Chen, had violated the Public Records Act to conceal the fact that the texts were missing. Chen ludicrously argued that the mayor is not part of “the mayor’s office” and that records requesters didn’t need to know that they were only receiving reconstructed, partial records culled from the recipients of the mayor’s texts.
Thanks to whistle-blowers, the cover-up failed. The public finally learned about what had happened last month, when the ethics report came out. But what else might be hidden?
There’s a maxim, popular online, called Hanlon’s Razor. In one formation it goes, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” The case of Seattle’s missing texts might be the result of both. Either way, it’s a black eye for the city, and the public deserves a full, honest accounting of what happened, who erred and why.