At least twice in recent years, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration rejected budget proposals to improve the city’s handling and preservation of text messages, shooting down detailed plans that staff said could help employees comply with state law and save the city from costly penalties for destroying public records.
Now the mayor and other high-ranking officials are embroiled in controversy over months’ worth of texts that have been deleted, including messages exchanged during the tumultuous weeks last June when Seattle police tear-gassed racial justice demonstrators and abandoned the city’s East Precinct station.
For Seattle’s 2019 and 2020 budgets, Durkan’s budget office rejected proposals by the city’s Finance and Administrative Services and IT departments to fund text-archiving projects, budget records show.
For the 2019 budget, the administration rebuffed a $761,000 “text archiving solution” to develop a way to “archive, retain, search, retrieve and purge all text messages,” to update the city’s IT policies and to train employees about them. For the 2020 budget, it nixed a $298,000 “text archiving assessment” to develop new policies and identify a solution.
The more recent proposal, detailed in a preliminary budget issue paper, pointed out that the city “regularly receives public-disclosure requests, litigation-discovery requests and third-party subpoenas for cellphone data and text messages.”
The paper stressed that the city “does not currently have a text message archiving, retention, searching, retrieval and purging tool.” It also noted that the city “lacks clear and consistent policy direction around using text messages for business purposes, and usage varies widely among departments and functions.
“Without technological tools to support these requests, the City may be at risk of inadvertently providing an incomplete response to a public records request,” the paper said. “The price for failing to provide a record in response to a public-records request can be extremely high (City of Bainbridge was penalized $700,000).”
A May 2019 memo by Durkan’s budget director, Ben Noble, shows the plan was rejected under the heading “Decline for Budget Submittal.” The previous version also was rejected by the budget office, an email from May 2018 shows.
In an email Friday, a Durkan spokesperson said the mayor didn’t personally reject the text-archiving proposals; they were declined by the budget office before reaching her desk. The budget office didn’t think the proposals made sense, according to spokesperson Anthony Derrick.
The 2019 budget proposal called for developing “in house” technology, whereas the city attorney’s office at the time was exploring “off the shelf” options with the potential to work better and cost less, and the budget office wanted to pursue that path, Derrick said. The 2020 proposal was for a study that wouldn’t have addressed the city’s actual technology needs, the spokesperson added.
The city has hired additional public-records officers and added funding for records in recent years, including in 2018, 2019 and 2020, Derrick said. There were no text-archiving proposals made in the 2021 budget, he said.
Durkan has said she assumed that her messages were being backed up. Her office has said the mayor is committed to transparency and to overhauling the city’s public-records system, which needs “improvement and modernization.”
Last summer, the mayor’s office decided to transfer responsibility for the city’s public records program from the finance department to the IT department, Derrick said, thinking a tech-savvy agency would be better situated to address challenges related to an increase in records requests, standardize procedures across departments and handle an increase in digital records accumulated by employees working remotely during the pandemic.
The transfer occurred in October; the IT department “has been working diligently to build out a plan” that includes recommendations and pricing for technology solutions covering texts, mobile-device management, litigation-related records work and more records officers, Derrick said.
Early last month, a Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission whistleblower investigation found that Durkan’s texts from late August 2019 to late June 2020 had not been retained.
The commission’s investigation, triggered by a complaint lodged by a public-records officer, determined that the mayor’s office had broken the state’s public-records law while handling requests from reporters and others for Durkan’s communications during that period.
Under state law and guidelines, local elected officials’ texts and other communications about public business must be kept for at least two years before being transferred to the state archives for further assessment.
The legal counsel for the mayor’s office engaged in “improper governmental action” by excluding Durkan’s texts from certain requests and using narrow interpretations of the requests to do so, the investigation reported. The legal counsel also directed staff not to inform requesters that Durkan’s texts were missing and to instead provide them with some exchanges “re-created” from the phones of employees the mayor had texted with, the investigation said.
The mayor’s office initially attributed the loss of her texts to an “unknown technology issue,” then acknowledged that her phone at some point was set to delete texts older than 30 days — the shortest of three standard text-retention options on an iPhone.
Neither Durkan nor the IT department has taken responsibility for selecting that setting, which violates state law and the city’s retention policies. A written report by the consultant who conducted the forensic analysis is pending, and the city has spent at least $123,000 on the work.
Texts from eight other officials, including the city’s fire chief and former police chief, are also missing from periods that include last June, The Seattle Times learned. The city has attributed some of those missing texts to password and software problems, but has yet to explain how former police Chief Carmen Best’s texts disappeared.
Several high-profile lawsuits against the city focus on decisions the mayor and other officials made last June, during the protests and unrest on Capitol Hill, and lawyers warned the city last summer to retain all communications. But the city kept the plaintiffs, their lawyers and the public in the dark about the missing texts until this spring.
Multiple mayoral candidates have called for independent investigations into how the texts were deleted, but no law enforcement agencies have taken up the issue. The Seattle Times sued over the matter this month, alleging the city violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding or destroying Durkan’s records after they were requested.
The suit is intended “to hold the City accountable for chronic noncompliance which has hampered the Times’ watchdog efforts at City Hall.” The suit also argues the city did not respond to requests in a timely fashion and with the fullest assistance, as required by the state law.
Requests from four Times reporters were among those mishandled, according to the ethics commission investigation.
In March — the same month whistleblower Stacy Irwin’s complaint sparked the commission investigation — the city launched a pilot project in Durkan’s office to assess third-party vendor options for automatically preserving texts and other data in the cloud.