Is private e-mail use pervasive at City Hall? An audit would help us find out.
Is private e-mail use pervasive at City Hall? An audit would help us find out. Getty/drial7m1

City employees in the mayor’s office and possibly the City Council appear to be conducting government business on private e-mail accounts and failing to disclose these communications through public records requests, so we’re doing something about it.

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Earlier this month we signed onto a letter calling for an audit examining the use of private e-mails by city officials in Seattle. Reporters have recently exposed city officials using private e-mails to discuss city business with political consultants. The city then appeared to intentionally withhold those records from record requests. We only know about these communications because the city was forced to hand over the records in a lawsuit.

Lawsuits should not be the primary tool for making the city follow the law; the law itself should be compelling enough to the mayor and the City Council. The mayor’s office and City Council staff appear to either not know the open records law or not care. Both are bad and raise serious problems for our government.

Good government policy comes from open governments. When special interests or policy discussions are obscured from the public, bad policies and corruption are often the outcomes. Breaking the law can also cost the city huge amounts of money in lawsuits where the city is forced to pay penalties for not following its own rules. We think government discussions should be conducted openly and not obscured from public records requests. So both of us, along with a few other local journalists are calling for an investigation.

We want an audit.

We are joined by a ragtag crew of journalists: Seattle City Council blogger Kevin Schofield, Erica C. Barnett of The C is for Crank, the Editors of Crosscut, and Ashley Archibald of Real Change News.

Kevin is our defacto ringleader and drafted the letter that we all signed and sent to the city auditor, asking for an audit of city communications on private e-mails. We quickly got an answer. City Auditor David G. Jones was like, uhhhhh not my problem.

“There are significant audit independence issues if we were to do work that focused on the City Council. Given that we are housed in the same branch of government as the Council, it would compromise the independence of the audit if our office were to audit the Council,” Jones said in response to our letter.

After our first defeat, Kevin sent our letter to Pat McCarthy, the state auditor. Kathleen Cooper, a spokesperson for the state auditor, said McCarthy declined to investigate the matter any further.

“Our office believes the public records law is the best tool for you and your colleagues to use to determine the answers to the questions in your letter, so there is no need for an audit,” Cooper said in an e-mail.

We find this answer disappointing because we have already used the tool McCarthy recommends. It’s precisely because of records requests (and subsequent lawsuits) that we think there’s a problem in our local government. In our letter to the auditors, Kevin cited a series of articles in the local media that showed city officials using private e-mails for city business. By local media I mean Lewis Kamb of the Seattle Times.

Kamb’s reporting on the city’s head tax repeal earlier this year showed officials discussing the repeal vote and city policy on private e-mail accounts. Kamb published an e-mail thread between five people—including the mayor’s spokesperson, three deputy mayors, and two private political consultants–discussing the upcoming repeal of the controversial head tax and what policies the city should move forward with. In the e-mail thread dated June 11, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong asked the group for thoughts on his homelessness plan, titled “Seattle’s Path Forward on Homelessness: Four Point Plan.” Kelly Evans, one of the private political consultants, then responded with a few comments on Fong’s plan.

The city refused to turn over these e-mails in an earlier records request Kamb had made for all communications about the repeal of the head tax. Kamb only received these e-mails after the Times appealed closure of the records request and attorneys not affiliated with the Times filed a separate lawsuit against the city. When Kamb asked why the city didn’t originally turn over the records they told him that the thread didn’t concern city business and was instead an election campaign matter.

We disagree. The deputy mayor asking for advice on a homelessness plan is discussing city business and it should have been disclosed to Kamb’s earlier request. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told the Times that he also agreed the city was not following the rules.

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“It’s clearly not appropriate to have that conversation on a private e-mail account, or in this case a bunch of private e-mail accounts,” Nixon told the Times.

How many other times have our records requests missed certain communications because they were on private e-mail accounts? We have no way of knowing, and the idea that it’s up to private journalists to enforce the law is laughable. We barely have enough money for coffee, let alone enough funds to pay for constant lawsuits and records requests. That’s why we want an audit. It would tell us how pervasive this practice is as well as giving the city valuable information they can use to better follow the law.

If only we found an auditor interested looking into it.

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