City of Seattle strikes back newspaper in public records case

SEATTLE (AP) – Lawyers for the city of Seattle deny breaking the state’s public records law after the mayor’s text messages disappeared at a time that included large protests in the city following the murder of George Floyd.

And the city strikes back at the Seattle Times in response to a lawsuit alleging the city mismanaged journalists’ requests for text messages from senior officials during this tumultuous time last summer.

The Seattle Times reports that in an official 25-page response filed Friday to the newspaper’s lawsuit, which began in June, the city denied most legal allegations, including allegations directly based on a city’s ethics investigation into a complaint of ‘a whistleblower who revealed that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had been violated. the Public Disclosure Act after discovering that the mayor’s texts were missing for a period of 10 months.

By law and state directives, the texts of local elected officials and other communications concerning public affairs must be kept for at least two years before being transferred to the state archives.

Although she concedes the mayor’s texts are lost, the city’s response, filed in King County Superior Court, includes a counterclaim against the newspaper and seeks a legal judgment that it “complied with all relevant provisions of the Public Records Act ”.

Katherine George, the newspaper’s lawyer, said the city’s counter-suit was highly unusual.

“Governments generally do not file counter-suits against requesters for public documents who attempt to uphold the public’s right to know,” she said in an email.

Dan Nolte, spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said on Monday that he was unable to outline the city’s legal strategy, adding: “We look forward to responding more to these claims as they arise. as the litigation progresses “.

The counterclaim seeks to recover legal costs, expenses and the fees of private attorneys in the city. Nolte said Monday that the city had agreed to pay Pacifica Law Group, a Seattle private firm hired to handle the case, an amount “not to exceed $ 75,000 in legal services without prior approval.”

Seattle Times editor-in-chief Michele Matassa Flores said Durkan “has already admitted that the city” has failed to comply with state public records law – after the city’s own ethics commission town and Durkan’s own independent review came to this conclusion.

“Given this, we are extremely surprised and disappointed at the extent of the denial shown in this counter-suit,” said Matassa Flores. “What will it take for the mayor and his staff to do more than lip service to transparency and the importance of independent journalism?” “

The newspaper filed a complaint in June, about a month after a Seattle Elections and Ethics Commission investigative report found that Durkan’s texts from late August 2019 to late June 2020 had failed. been selected.

Triggered by a whistleblower complaint filed by a public records officer, Stacy Irwin, and supported by another, Kimberly Ferreiro, the investigation determined that the mayor’s legal counsel, Michelle Chen, had engaged in “government action.” inappropriate ”and had violated the Archives Law when it decided to exclude the missing Durkan texts from certain queries.