May 15, 2021
This week Erica C. Barnett joins Crystal to review further revelations in the mishandling of public records requests by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the psychology of offering vaccination incentives.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Erica Barnett, at @ericacbarnett. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Public records requests mishandled after Seattle mayor’s texts went missing, commission finds” by Daniel Beekman: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/public-records-requests-were-mishandled-after-seattle-mayors-texts-went-missing-whistleblower-investigation-finds/
“Not just the mayor: Text messages of Seattle police and fire chiefs from June 2020 also missing” by Daniel Beekman and Lewis Kamb: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/not-just-the-mayor-text-messages-of-seattle-police-and-fire-chiefs-from-june-2020-also-missing/
“Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had phone set to keep texts only 30 days, her office says” by Lewis Kamb and Daniel Beekman: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-mayor-jenny-durkan-had-phone-set-to-delete-texts-older-than-30-days/
“We asked for Mayor Jenny Durkan's text messages, and this is what we got” by Ashley Hiruko: https://www.kuow.org/stories/we-asked-for-jenny-durkan-s-text-messages-and-this-is-what-they-gave-us
“Durkan Destroys 10 Months of Text Messages in Apparent Coverup” by Doug Trumm: https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/05/13/durkan-destroys-10-months-of-text-messages-in-apparent-coverup/
“Should Mayor Jenny Durkan Resign Over Those Missing Texts?” by Nathalie Graham: https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2021/05/13/57321148/should-mayor-jenny-durkan-resign-over-those-missing-texts
“Black researchers say Seattle Mayor's Office has undermined their work to help reimagine public safety” by Liz Brazile: https://www.kuow.org/stories/black-researchers-say-seattle-mayor-s-office-has-undermined-their-work-to-help-reimagine-public-safety
“Seattle partners with businesses to offer COVID-19 vaccine incentives” by Christine Pae: https://www.king5.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/vaccine/seattle-free-incentives-for-people-who-get-covid-19-vaccine/281-b2dce03d-f083-4f6a-9b24-1f1f176f5234
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. And if you like the show, please throw in a great review. We really appreciate that and it helps the show. Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week. Welcome back to the program friend of the show and today's co-host: Seattle political reporter, editor of PubliCola and author of Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, Erica Barnett.
Erica Barnett: [00:00:53] Thanks, Crystal. Great to be here.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:55] Great to have you back. So we've had a little bit of news this week. When we talked last Friday with you folks - when I was talking with Marcus Harrison Green - news about a whistleblower complaint that had been filed had just broke about 12 hours before. And we were just beginning to learn about the details of the news of, evidently, missing texts from the mayor's office and intentionally not being responsive to public records requests. We've since learned a lot more about the details behind those missing texts. And it looks like this was an intentional action and very problematic. What have we learned about this?
Erica Barnett: [00:01:40] Well, a couple things since last week and one thing that was reported by the Seattle Times, I believe, just yesterday. Both of the records request officers who filed this whistleblower complaint initially are no longer working for the mayor's office. One stepped down and the other was put on administrative leave in an action that many are interpreting as retaliatory. Sure looks that way to me. And, I mean, the basics are that 10 months of texts from, to and from - the mayor herself, Mayor Durkan herself, the Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and then Police Chief Carman Best - disappeared. And the mayor's office is saying that it was because of some sort of technical glitch. Those 10 months, of course, included the period of protest, the period when the East Precinct was abandoned by the Seattle Police Department, and just probably the biggest, you know, news weeks of last year. There are no texts available from any of those really relevant and involved public officials for that period.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:50] Well, and this is just mind-boggling. One, the length of time that this covers. And two, this actually looks like it's an intentional action. It is hard to see how this wasn't an intentional hiding or destruction of records. Jenny Durkan's a former US Attorney. She's intimately familiar with the law and with requirements for preserving communications and evidence. This is not someone who's a novice and had also been in a - I don't know how to characterize it - a warning action in relation to another issue that her office had - even had to take a refresher course on disclosures. What in the world! She knows how to maintain this. And it came out that she had changed a setting, or setting on her city-issued phone was set to destroy texts after one month. And that's not the default setting. You have to change that setting.
Erica Barnett: [00:03:52] I don't even know how to do that, to be honest. I mean, I have texts going back to, you know, 2016 on my phone, which I probably got in 2016. So I - yeah, that is something that takes some doing.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:05] Yeah. So someone who should be more knowledgeable than just about anyone else from her profession and certainly touted her skills and qualifications when running for office - now wants us to believe that she doesn't know that she somehow accidentally, very coincidentally, somehow changed the setting on the phone to destroy texts after a month that she knew needed to be maintained. And now we're just supposed to not question, and deal with the aftermath, and let her seemingly retaliate against employees who brought this to light - that this is actually potentially a crime.
Erica Barnett: [00:04:47] Yeah, it's potentially a felony to destroy this information and what's also - I mean, first of all, the issue of not destroying communications has been around for a very long time. I covered it in 2003 with emails from the City Council and that was addressed at the time. There is ample training at the City. I mean, the lowest level city employee knows you don't just go around deleting your text messages and deleting your emails.
But what's really kind of frustrating about this for, from a media perspective, is the Seattle Times can probably sue for these records if they want to because they have, compared to everybody else, fairly infinite resources - they've got lawyers. But if they don't do that, we're just - I certainly can't sue for all the texts that I was denied over the years, because it costs money and because I don't have any standing to demand them at this point. And that is true of any member of the public, who sought messages during that time period too, which I'm sure there are many, because there was tons of speculation about who shut down the East Precinct, who gave orders to do various things - tear gas, blast balls - was this coming directly from the top? And all that information is, as it pertains to the mayor's phone, is gone.
And the only way to really get it is a subpoena in a lawsuit at this point, if I'm not mistaken. I mean, unless they were retained somewhere at the City level, and unless the mayor's office decides to release them right now. So the problem - our records law is very strong, but it's also very fragile, because it depends on, to a certain extent, the goodwill of people who are obliged to follow it. And if they decide not to follow it, it takes some doing to force them to do so.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:46] It does. And you bring up, with this issue of accountability - okay, there is a law, there is potentially a felony that's been committed. Do we care to look into it? Is there a method for that? We have to rely on a private entity to bring a lawsuit, as you said it appears at this time, in order to do that. Or we have to rely on other people within the system to hold them accountable. Now, whistleblowers certainly did their part. We appreciate them standing up for a process and the rule of law and saying, Hey, we're aware of something that is potentially illegal and wrong, and we want to do this. We hope they are protected against retaliation. It is very concerning that one of them has been placed on administrative leave.
And that certainly is consistent with other reports that we've heard from employees, including one covered in a KUOW report this past week about the participatory budgeting process, where other employees have raised an alarm saying, Hey, we feel pressure to go along with a program and processes and dictates from the mayor's office that we feel are misrepresenting our work or that are not completely forthright and honest. And if we don't go along, we are afraid of retaliation. We've heard that theme, we've seen people leave. You even covered some of that - I was reading one of your Twitter threads talking about how some people feel like they don't have the freedom or ability to do their jobs in communications roles. And they feel like there's no longer a place for them, because they are not able to, in good conscience, or to do their jobs.
Erica Barnett: [00:08:34] Well, yeah, and they - I mean, the thing with the communications folks is everything from the very beginning - everything has had to be micromanaged by this mayor's office. And so just the Twitter thread you're referring to - just getting the absolute most basic or technical information from departments has required this long process where everything has to go through several staffers at the mayor's office, several kind of comms people - who pretty it up and doctor it up and make it tell a positive story, no matter what it is. I mean, even just the most mundane stuff that I asked for. And so you get these emails back that are in like five different fonts, 'cause they've gone through five different people. Well, it's like, well, can I just have the answer to my question? 'Cause all I actually wanted to know is - what is the length of this bike lane or whatever it may be. And yeah, it's been - I mean, it would almost be comical, except that it's frustrating because a lot of times you don't actually get the answer that you were originally asking for 'cause everything has to be processed through so many layers of people.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:43] Yeah, and I think it's important for people to know, who may not be familiar with the process of getting information from government, that that is not normal. That is not usual. And that is not just a result of, Oh, this is just a different administration and people are unhappy with the policies, so they're finding things to nitpick about. This was not the case with Murray or with McGinn or with -
Erica Barnett: [00:10:08] Or even Nickels. Yeah, even though Nickels had a very tight shop - you could call the deputy mayor and the deputy mayor would call you back. That is not the case for me. I mean, I'm sure it's certainly the case for the Seattle Times, which has given, frankly, over the years, quite a lot of flattering coverage to the mayor. They're doing great work as well, but there's a question of access. And that access just simply does not exist for the likes of me, or for adversarial media in general.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:40] Right. And just the control of information from departments where - before you could call up SDOT and ask a question, a fairly basic question, "Hey, why are we doing this change on this street?" and get an answer. Where now, all of that kind of communication is routed through the mayor's office. They have been told not to answer. That that answer - that that question needs to go to the mayor's office and only they can answer. And who they choose to answer and how they choose to answer has been completely inconsistent. And the answers that they give have not always been the truth. And now, as we are uncovering more, seems like they were hiding a lot of information and it's certainly concerning.
Then also concerning is - so what happens now? And so we have seen some candidates - one in particular, Jessyn Farrell, came out with a statement, "Hey, you know what, this basically, this - we need to elect a mayor who will follow the rules. And so, we need to elect someone like me, who will just follow the rules." And that was met with a lot of people saying, "Hey, with all due respect, it is great. We definitely want to elect someone who will follow the rules, but we want people, we want the policy and the rules to actually mean something. So if someone breaks them, the answer isn't just to say, 'Aw, man, that's really sad. I guess we have to go with someone else.' It's to hold that person accountable. So what are we going to do with Durkan? Are you calling for her resignation or not? What is the role of accountability?"
And then even from the Council perspective, I believe, Council President Lorena González has talked about creating a new office or system to handle disclosures and to wrap more - I say bureaucracy and sometimes that has a negative connotation - but to stand up an administrative authority to more independently handle disclosures. Which may turn out to be great - I am not intimately familiar with those details yet. I'm sure we'll have more, but a lot of people said, "That's well and fine, but what are we doing with Durkan? Are you calling for her resignation? How are we holding Durkan accountable for breaking these rules?" And it just seemed like people skipped over that fact. And like we just really haven't talked about - a felony was potentially committed in the mayor's office.
This actually is not a partisan issue at all, aside from the fact that most people in Seattle identify as Democrats. This is just a really simple process. Anyone who has worked in government, been adjacent to government, understands how overt the disclosure process and awareness is. Some people who may be further away from this, they're like, "Big deal. I delete texts all the time. Like how - why is someone going to save a text that's years old? I have deleted mine." When the culture of government is the preservation of records and being hyper-aware that everything that is going on is potentially disclosable to the public. And frankly, people are very careful about what they say in emails and texts because of that. Because they're so aware of that.
So to act like that's not a big deal - she may not have known, changed a setting accidentally - just flies in the face of logic and reason, and is not believable at all. And it's really concerning - we were making national news daily during that time - for decisions that were made and not having questions and orders given to SPD, that were then seemingly ignored, and asked, "Hey, why - if you said don't use tear gas and then they're using tear gas. And you're just like, 'I don't know. Are they - are they using tear - I don't know what's happening.'" We have to be able to hold our leaders accountable for how they govern. This is a major element of how we make that possible. And to intentionally subvert that - I really do think there needs to be real questions.
Is this something that other people who are candidates or who were on the City Council - do they feel like this is worthy of holding someone accountable? Do we not? I think -
Erica Barnett: [00:14:52] Yeah.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:52] - we just saw Trump and the problem with not holding people accountable.
Erica Barnett: [00:14:55] Well, and what is so bad about this - the mayor is not running for reelection. I think there is - it's debatable whether this is a resignation-level offense. That's pretty - if indeed a felony was committed and all of that. But beyond that - first of all, accountability means owning up to what you did. And, personally, I'll just say - my personal opinion is, I'm not calling, just personally, for the mayor to resign. I think she should say what happened and be honest about it, instead of sort of giving all these defensive responses, frankly, about how they didn't do anything wrong and it was all an accident, because that is not believable.
But in a long-term sense, it really speaks to public trust of institutions and of government, and of city government in particular, when you just have no idea if the government is being honest with you. And I am one of those people - I just somewhat naively believed that public disclosure officers - well actually, this part I don't think is naive - public disclosure officers generally are very interested in providing you the information. And as we've seen with these whistleblowers, they were dogged about it in a lot of cases, but ultimately elected officials and department heads and people in departments have the ability to hide stuff from the public. I mean, they just do. And so we can't go down that road where they feel empowered to do that. And we also can't go down the road where - even if this is a one-mayor kind of situation, the public just doesn't trust the City anymore to tell them the truth about things. And I think that is the long-term risk here - is once Durkan's out of office in a few months, that the public simply doesn't believe that the mayor and City Council are accountable and are telling them the truth about what's going on at the City.
Crystal Fincher: [00:17:02] Yeah, I would agree with that. And whether or not Durkan resigns or people call for that, I think that there is much more of a responsibility and obligation that the City has to get to these texts, to exhaust every option, and to have or hire an independent entity who is capable of getting at this, and not to force a private entity to sue - the Times could do it, a number of the TV stations could probably do it, or consortium of them. If it comes down to that, I hope that would be the case and people would pursue that action. It seems like there is - that's a very worthy effort and there's a lot of newsworthy information and a lot of questions that would be answered by getting access to those texts.
But I do think that the city has an obligation to get to the bottom of this, and we can't skip over that and start working on a new bureaucracy without first saying, How do we actually address this problem? How do we look at how existing policies are contributing to this problem or not? Maybe the issue is that there just is not enough of an incentive or disincentive to not hide information. And people just don't feel like there's any penalty for that. So why not do it? Let's make it painful if someone's going to do that - politically, policy-wise sanctioned painful, not physically painful. These days I always feel the need to clarify that. But certainly we'll be continuing to pay attention to this - quite the issue, quite the conundrum that the City finds itself in. And I just hope we can get to these texts and get the answers to these big questions that we've been asking for a year now and still don't have an answer to.
Another issue in the City and that we're facing overall, I guess, is two questions. One, reopening the state. And then, the status of vaccine and vaccine incentives. And we're at the point now where vaccine supply is appearing to exceed demand, but that doesn't mean that there is no demand. And that doesn't mean that everyone is still vaccinated. There are lots of people who are not fully vaccinated, still looking for shots. We're just on the front end of having drop-in and pop-up clinics, which a lot of people need - who can't schedule around a job, or need childcare, and need more flexibility in when they can make it to get vaccinated - that certainly has been a barrier for people I know.
So we're still making our way through this, but there's also a significant portion of the population who is hesitant to get a vaccine for one reason or another. And the use of incentives, whether it's a free Krispy Kreme donut, or a free beer, or some free tickets, has become popular, has been in some people's view effective. A lot of people are like, "Hey, whatever it takes to get someone to take a vaccine, let's do it." You have looked at this and thought about this and it's like, are we - is this the most productive way to go about this? How have you viewed this?
Erica Barnett: [00:20:23] Well, look. I certainly agree. I mean, if the difference between somebody not getting a vaccine and getting a vaccine is a beer for a dollar, which I think is about the best that breweries can offer because of some obscure liquor law or other, I mean, okay. But to me - is that a rational - first of all, is that a rational response to a public health emergency, but also, Yeah, my reaction to it, just kind of emotionally and as a person and as a citizen of a society, is like, Dude, you don't have to get a cookie when you go to the dentist's office. You don't have to - you don't demand free tickets to a Mariners game for getting your annual checkup. And this is like, this is literally just basic healthcare. It's getting your vaccine the same way you get your flu shot hopefully every year. And it's also benefiting all the people around you.
So I personally traveled, drove down to Federal Way - I'm very fortunate 'cause I work my own hours and I could afford to spend the time - drove down to Federal Way, got my first shot 'cause it was hard to get shots at the time. It got a little easier by the time I got my second one. But I don't think we should encourage, in general, a culture where we have to pat people on the head and call them a good boy to do the most basic - to brush their teeth essentially. I mean, that said, sure, if ice cream gets you out - great. I think that the fact that we live in a society, and the fact that you don't want to die, and you don't want your grandmother to die, and you don't want strangers to die, and maybe strangers who can't get the vaccine for various health reasons - that should be incentive enough. And the idea - it's a minor thing, ultimately. Because it's fine - if Husky Deli wants to give away ice cream, go for it. But I find it kind of silly and disheartening that that's apparently what it takes for people to do their basic civic duty.
Crystal Fincher: [00:22:35] Yeah. I mean, I'm looking at this and ideally, absolutely. But what should be and what is are two very, very different things, in the same way that, you know, it's like, Hey, just like you go to the dentist. I think you might be surprised by how many people don't go to the dentist for a variety of reasons.
Erica Barnett: [00:22:54] Sure.
Crystal Fincher: [00:22:54] Some of it is just, Uh, I just haven't gotten around to it. Some of it is cost and access. Some of it is they had very painful experience. Like there's a lot that goes into how people interact, specifically with the healthcare system. And for a lot of things, there are a lot of - it seems like civic duty in one area, absolutely. And I'm fully vaccinated. I participated in a vaccine trial that I'm still in. And so clearly I would hope that people would do that. But I also understand that some people have not - a significant percentage of the population has not. And given that this is a public health issue, and we are relying on most people to do it, and our safety is in numbers, and that we're having trouble with those numbers, that we are at the point where anything helps because that is actually making the rest of us safer. And I also want to acknowledge, we look a lot at individual actions. And as a society, I think we are conditioned to look at an individual and how their actions impact others. But I think that we are - we cannot overlook how poorly as a public health administration and bureaucracy overall, most things about this pandemic - the vaccine, masking, you name it - have been communicated.
Erica Barnett: [00:24:21] For sure.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:22] They've done a poor job overall. And we know that impacts how people perceive this. We know that, Hey, this is with the mRNA vaccine - it's been touted in news coverage as, Hey, this is brand new and this is the fastest ever, which if that is not messaged consistently and carefully, and people are not consistently educated, and messaging is very consistent and strong - that people are going to think, Oh, this is a brand new vaccine that, you know, just was rushed out. Why should I take this?
Erica Barnett: [00:24:51] But here's the thing. I feel like - what I would really love to do is just have an exit interview at all of these places where you go to a brewery where people are getting vaccinated, then sitting around for a couple of hours and drinking a beer, and ask them why they didn't want to get vaccinated before. And my guess - this is just a hypothesis that I would love to test - is that they would not say it's because I am low-income and I didn't have, or I have a job that didn't grant me access to, during regular working hours, I couldn't get out to get the vaccine. Or like I had a problem with an mRNA vaccine, and then I got this beer and decided it was okay. I mean, I just wonder, and I really wanna know - who it is that is responding to an incentive that is worth a few dollars. And who is still not getting vaccinated for all these other reasons that you mentioned that are, that I totally get. But I just think if you're going to drive out of your way in the middle of the day to go get an ice cream, and wait in the line, and sit and eat the ice cream, like, I don't know. I would be curious to know if all of the sort of disadvantage-related demographic issues and whatever apply in that case. Or is it a bunch of guys who don't like to get a shot because they've never kind of been forced to do things like that in their life. I don't know. I don't know. It's just my hypothesis is that it is not, by and large, people who lack access or information.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:33] Yeah....
Erica Barnett: [00:26:34] I could be totally wrong.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:35] I - you know, I don't know that it's access, especially now that we are providing wider access. I think that there certainly are - have been issues around people's work, and childcare, and just being able to get there at times that certainly appointments were a hindrance to. And there has been some data collected on that elsewhere.
I think the biggest issue that we have is vaccine hesitancy and people are trying to add an incentive to say, Okay, some people are hesitant because they're just - they just are unsure that this is safe for whatever reason. I think that there is a lot of information that people can access to be clear, to have confidence for that. The groups that have been tested - it is widely and broadly looked at as safe, certainly in comparison to getting COVID - that taking the vaccine seems like a much safer route to go than getting COVID. But I also think that there's a number of people and there has been, at least covered in some study of this, and particularly talking about among healthcare workers who were hesitant initially to get the vaccine - that after seeing a number of people get it, you know, now people usually have friends and family members who they've seen get it. They haven't keeled over. And, you know, like we aren't all turning into 5G robots and tauntauns - that people are okay. So now it's just like an extra kick and incentive to get it out. Is that getting most people over the hump? I don't know.
I always think it's useful to do exit interviews and to collect data, so I hope that's happening everywhere regardless. I also understand that resources are an issue in that. And so who has the ability to stand that up and collect that in a reliable way is always a question of funding and capacity, but I don't have a problem with it. If we're throwing that on, just trying to do anything it takes to get more people vaccinated - particularly after the news that we just got from the CDC yesterday, that not only are they saying, Eh, you don't need masks anymore in public in outdoor spaces if you are vaccinated. But hey, indoor spaces - if you've been vaccinated, most indoor spaces were also fine. And guidance rapidly changing for that also. And what that means in terms of the potential for the spread of the virus now, especially since we still have variants going around. We are still in a pandemic, we're making our way out of it, but we're still in one. So it'll be interesting to see how this proceeds. I think you bring up some good points and like - it is a shame that we are here.
Erica Barnett: [00:29:15] Yeah, and I just very quickly, I think this also might be a bit of a hangover from all the sort of stories about, Well, why do people vote for Trump? I don't know. Let's go interview 900 more people in the Midwest. And it's like, well, ultimately, I mean, we have an answer. We have answers to this question. We don't need to keep asking it. And we know why some people don't get the vaccine and it's because they believe in 5G and because they think it's - I mean, my parents will not get the vaccine because they think it's doing something to their DNA. And so I know people who are not, in fact most of my family, is not getting vaccinated for various reasons. And it's - so this is very close to home for me, but it's also the case that I don't ask them about it anymore. There's no incentive that's going to get a certain percentage of the population to vaccinate. And so I, so I feel like it's a little bit like asking Trump voters why they voted for Trump. I mean, we know why most people voted for Trump and there's people on the margins that we can convince otherwise and we can get to get vaccinated. And I agree with you. I mean, ultimately any incentive is fine. I just, I just personally find it a little bit silly.
Crystal Fincher: [00:30:24] I got it. And I appreciate the conversation and your perspective. I thank all of you for listening to Hacks and Wonks on this Friday, May 14th, 2021. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler and our wonderful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola,. Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericacbarnett, that's Erica with a C and on publicola.com. You can buy her book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled f-i-n-c-h-f-r-i-i. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. While you're there, leave a review, it really helps us out. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.