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City Of Seattle Sues Newspaper Over Public Records Requests After City ‘Lost’ Records About Autonomous Zone

Seattle, WA – Lawyers for Seattle denied the city mishandled public records requests for the city leaderships’ text messages from the tumultuous period when protesters established a police-free autonomous zone, and now they’re countersuing in response to a lawsuit by the Seattle Times.

The newspaper filed a lawsuit against the city in June after 10 months of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s text messages disappeared without a trace, and the Seattle Times had formally requested the records which are required by law to be released.

The Seattle Ethics Commission investigated and determined that one of the mayor’s city-issued cell phones was missing messages from August of 2019 through June of 2020.

The investigation revealed that Michelle Chen, the mayor’s legal counsel, had engaged in “improper governmental action” and broken the records law when she left the missing messages out of public records requests, the Seattle Times reported.

Investigators found that Chen told records officers not to say anything about the missing texts and instead provide those requesting the information with “re-created” exchanges cobbled together from employees’ phones.

The report showed the missing text messages were tied to at least 48 open records requests, and were potentially key evidence in lawsuits filed against the city for things the mayor and her administration did during the unrest following the death of George Floyd, the Seattle Times reported.

Once the ethics commissions report was released, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes was forced to admit that text messages were also missing from the phones of then-Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and six other city officials, the Seattle Times reported.

State law requires that all texts and communications by elected officials be retained for at least two years before being transferred to the state archives.

So the mayor’s office hired retired King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer to take a second, independent look at the ethics commission’s investigation, the Seattle Times reported.

Hilyer said the commission’s investigation was conducted appropriately.

He recommended that several of the mishandled records requests be reopened and suggested an overhaul of the records system in Durkan’s office, the Seattle Times reported.

The mayor admitted in a letter to the ethics commission on July 2 that “the underlying actions fell short” of the city’s obligations under the public records act and said “no government should be looking to narrowly apply the law.”

But despite that admission by Durkan, attorneys for Seattle filed a 25-page answer to the newspaper’s complaint on Friday and denied almost all of the allegations against it, including the things the mayor had already acknowledged violated the public disclosure law, the Seattle Times reported.

In filing its response to the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court, the city also filed a lawsuit against the newspaper.

Attorneys for the city want the court to rule that Seattle “complied with all relevant provisions of the Public Records Act,” the Seattle Times reported.

The city’s countersuit sought to recover legal fees and expenses.

Dan Nolte, a spokesman for the city attorney, said Seattle had agreed to pay private Seattle firm Pacifica Law Group an amount “not to exceed $75,000 in legal services without prior approval” to handle the case, the Seattle Times reported.

The countersuit doesn’t make sense given that the mayor had “already acknowledged the city ‘fell short’ of the state’s public-records law — after the city’s own ethics commission and Durkan’s own independent review reached that conclusion,” Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores said.

“Given that, we’re extremely surprised and disappointed at the extent of denial shown in this countersuit,” Matassa Flores said. “What will it take for the mayor and her staff to give more than lip service to transparency and the importance of independent journalism?”

Katherine George, attorney for the Seattle Times, called the city’s move very unusual.

“Governments ordinarily don’t file countersuits against public records requesters who are trying to enforce the public’s right to know,” George said in an email.

Written by
Sandy Malone

Managing Editor - Twitter/@SandyMalone_ - Prior to joining The Police Tribune, Sandy wrote the Politics.Net column for the Wall Street Journal and was managing editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. More recently, she was an internationally-syndicated columnist for Conde Nast (BRIDES), The Huffington Post, and Monsters and Critics. Sandy is married to a retired police captain and former SWAT commander.

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Written by Sandy Malone

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