(The Center Square) – The City of Seattle is facing a lawsuit for allegedly mishandling public records concerning the city's handling of last summer's protests against police brutality.
The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court on Thursday by the Seattle and concerns text messages sent from mayor Jenny Durkan's city-issued iPhone between Aug. 2019 and June 25, 2020. Other public workers are implicated as well. That timeframe includes the period in which mass protests began in Seattle following the killing of George Floyd on May 25. A whistleblower complaint filed against the mayor's office last month alleges they were not retained.
In its lawsuit, the Times is seeking compensation from the city to cover its legal fees, the records requested, and steps to ensure public records do not go missing again.
When the paper filed the complaint, Durkan's chief of staff claimed their deletion was due to an "unknown technology issue." The mayor's office has since said the texts were deleted automatically on one of Durkan's city-issued phones after 30 days. It is unknown who was responsible for inputting that setting.
Many of those texts were directly related to five public records requests filed by the Seattle Times. They center on the mayor's instructions to city agencies about engaging with the media and her exchanges with the Seattle Police Department on the use of tear gas.
The requested texts were also sent during the period when Seattle's Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone was in full swing. During that time, the Seattle Police abandoned the East Precinct building amid the gathered crowds. A 19-year-old man was shot to death in the area where Seattle police and paramedics allegedly failed to intervene. His family has filed a wrongful death claim against the city for $3 billion.
"In a democracy, it's the public's right to know who is making decisions at City Hall and why—whether it's about spending tax dollars or shifting police tactics or anything else," said Seattle Times Executive Editor Matassa Flores. "It should not take months or years for elected officials and public servants to explain their actions. And important records should not be destroyed."
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Seattle has warned requesters from The Center Square and other news outlets of months-long delays in granting public records requests due to an alleged backlog of requests.
The lawsuit is the latest in a long list of political liabilities for Durkan since the one-term mayor announced she would seek a second term this fall. Her time in office has been marked by controversies such as her support for sweeps of homeless camps, her approach to the city's housing crisis and police brutality.
A founding member of the Seattle Police Foundation, Durkan served as the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington from 2009 to 2017. She was elected mayor in 2017, winning 56% of the vote and beating Seattle architect Cary Moon. A recall petition against Durkan failed in court last fall.
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson with the Seattle City Attorney's Office, said in a statement the city intends to review the lawsuit and will respond accordingly.