When Jenny Durkan was elected mayor she inherited policies from Ed Murray, a disgraced executive who had a notoriously controlling spokesperson. Murray resigned after five men accused him of child sexual abuse; his handling of the scandal helped cement his reputation as the worst among recent Seattle mayors when it comes to transparency. That is, until Durkan came along.
A year into the mayor’s tenure, journalists who make regular contact with her communications team perceive that it’s more difficult to get comments now than in years past. And some wonder if access to public information has been the worst under Durkan.
The answer for Washington Coalition for Open Government’s president Toby Nixon? It’s not worse than before—it’s as bad as it’s been.
“Seattle has always been not very good at this... They get sued a lot because they don’t turn over records like they should,” Nixon says. “It just builds an atmosphere of distrust.”
When Seattle council members repealed their controversial head tax last June—less than a month after they unanimously passed it—a Seattle Times report revealed that Durkan’s office had been the instigator. Now the city faces lawsuits that contend the Seattle City Council violated the Open Public Meetings Act by gathering a majority vote on the repeal behind closed doors.
After a public records request, it’s unclear how much sway an office spokesperson—or public information officer—has on what’s being released. That’s when it gets problematic, says a former city public records officer, who chose to remain anonymous. “It’s a mistake to assign a PIO to a public record,” the former employee says. “There’s a conflict right there.”
The mayor’s office denies claims that spokespeople have control over what gets disclosed. They use a system unchanged since the Murray administration, according to Durkan’s spokesperson Mark Prentice.
On the contrary, Prentice says the new mayor faces a greater challenge than the previous administration when it comes to public records: the sheer volume. According to the mayor’s office, Durkan has received more requests for public records in one year than Murray ever did—220 requests before the end of 2018, compared to 161 in 2017. Despite the increased demand, Prentice boasts that this mayor’s office furnishes faster responses, cutting the average time to finish a request by 11 days. (Reporters have complained the city, at times, will supply only minimal information, then deem a request “completed.”)
It’s too soon to tell whether public disclosure is worse under Durkan’s administration—and under new employees, who may not be used to the rules—says Nixon, the open government watchdog. But the city attorney’s office has a history of overusing exemptions, he adds.
Every administration focuses on messaging—what it wants, and doesn’t want, the public to see. But when publicity efforts override our right to transparency, it can turn into a political nightmare replete with lawsuits and, just as troubling, a city under wraps.