The city of Seattle this week dropped its counterclaim against The Seattle Times, which filed a lawsuit in June alleging the city mishandled reporters’ requests for top officials’ text messages during last summer’s protests.
In an amended response to the Times’ original complaint, which argues the city violated the Public Records Act by losing, withholding or destroying Mayor Jenny Durkan’s records after they were requested, lawyers for the city dropped the counterclaim and a request for fees. The city’s original response, filed two weeks ago in King County Superior Court, had denied any wrongdoing and sought to recover the city’s legal costs, expenses and private attorneys’ fees.
The city’s new response, filed Monday in King County Superior Court, means the Times can return to its original goal of shedding light on the handling of Durkan’s records, said attorney Kathy George, who is representing the news organization.
“It makes this again a traditional public records case,” she said. “We started off with a traditional public records case and the counterclaim sort of altered that and made it an unusually antagonistic posture.”
Now, “we can just prosecute our own claims without having to worry about the city trying to file its own motion to prove everything they did was legal,” she added.
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said in a statement Monday that the counterclaim never accused The Times of wrongdoing but rather “sought precisely the same relief as the Seattle Times itself — a judicial determination of whether the City has complied with the Public Records Act.”
“Despite the innocuousness of that language, as a show of good faith and in the interest of achieving a mutually agreeable resolution to the Times’ case, the City has amended its Answer to withdraw the counterclaim,” Nolte said.
He also said that while a request for attorney’s fees is standard in most civil litigation, the City has previously publicly committed to not seek fees, costs or damages in this case and “so has amended the Answer to align with that stated commitment.”
George said she expects to receive the first discovery response this week, meaning “we’ll start to learn more about what really happened with the city’s handling of these records requests.”
The Times’ original complaint followed a whistleblower investigation that found Durkan’s office violated state public records laws in its handling of requests after discovering the mayor’s texts were missing for a 10-month period.
Four Seattle Times reporters were among the requesters affected. Their requests were largely focused on officials’ communications surrounding a series of events during last summer’s protests for racial justice. The reporters were seeking information on events including fatal shootings in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area that formed after police abandoned the East Precinct in the neighborhood and the retirement of former Police Chief Carmen Best. None of the reporters were informed that the mayor’s texts had not been retained.
The Times also argues the city did not respond to requests in a timely fashion and with the fullest assistance, as required by state law.
Information from The Seattle Times’ archives was included in this story.