Durkan’s Public Disclosure Practices Raise Concerns About Transparency

I highly recommend reading Lewis Kamb’s story in the Seattle Times this weekend, about how Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staffers used private Gmail accounts to craft a deal to overturn the employee hours tax, and then failed to disclose those emails in response to a Times records request.  As Kamb reports, the emails came to light as part of a lawsuit by open government activists seeking to prove that Durkan’s office and the city council tried to subvert the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by “secretly predetermining the outcome of the June 12 repeal vote,” as Kamb put it, which overturned a tax that Durkan had previously supported (after private conversations with Amazon and other business leaders who apparently assured the mayor they would not oppose the tax).

The revelations are alarming not only because they reveal Durkan’s propensity for doing city business in private (her office contends that the Gmail conversations about the council’s upcoming vote on the tax were “private political discussions,” according to Kamb, and provided them with the Gmail records as a “courtesy”), but because it took a lawsuit to make the emails sent from private accounts public. (The Times received a separate cache of emails that the mayor’s office initially withheld after the Times appealed the closure of the request, “believing not all responsive records had been turned over,” according to Kamb’s story). In other words: The mayor’s office closed the Times‘ records request without releasing many of the records that they should have provided. They only provided some of those records after the Times appealed. And they handed over the remainder of the documents—the ones sent from private Gmail accounts—in response to a lawsuit by a third party.

I had a similar experience with the mayor’s office recently, one that—while it didn’t directly involve emails sent from staffers’ personal accounts—did raise similar, troubling questions about the Durkan administration’s commitment to public disclosure and transparency. Back in August, I filed a request seeking all emails from the mayor’s communications staff that included sample social media posts—pre-written Facebook posts and tweets that supporters are supposed to cut and paste and present as their own—about a list of 19 specific events. I also asked for a list of every bcc’d recipient for these emails, as well as any emails sent from mayoral staffers’ personal accounts.

The mayor’s office responded, on October 12, by sending me multiple copies of a single document, sent from mayoral spokesman Mark Prentice’s official government account to about 200 people: An email offering sample social media posts supporting the creation of the mayor’s Innovation Advisory Council. Mayoral public disclosure officer Stacy Irwin then closed my request, without providing a single document about the other 18 events I had listed. The fact that the mayor’s office only provided emails for one event on the list I provided would have raised eyebrows on its own, but I also happened to already have copies of some of the emails I requested,  so I knew they hadn’t fulfilled my request. That same day, I requested the rest of the documents. For ten days, I got no response. On October 22, I emailed again, and finally heard back from Prentice that night. “I’m working on rounding up my emails and sending to you as attachments if that works – I can get those to you by the end of the week,” he wrote. The next day, I asked Prentice again for an explanation of why the mayor’s office had closed my request, but I never got a response. On November 5, I  emailed Prentice, his boss, Stephanie Formas, deputy mayors Shefali Ranganathan and Mike Fong, and Irwin, the following:

After several weeks of asking (documented in my previous email to you, from last week) I STILL have not heard back on why my request was shut down with only some relevant records provided. …The reason I consider this total lack of response from the mayor’s office serious is that closing a request without explanation—and without providing all the responsive records—is a potential violation of state public records law. It’s not just the principle of the thing; it’s the thing (complying with the law) itself.

A series of back-and-forth emails followed, in which the mayor’s office said repeatedly that it was working to provide the documents I requested (my request was never, to my knowledge, formally reopened), and blamed “some confusion on the email accounts that I searched in order to fulfill your request” for the fact that I only got records about one of the 19 events. But when the rest of the documents did come through, it turned out that most of them originated from the same email as the first batch—Prentice’s official government address—which makes this explanation (that they hadn’t searched the right accounts) dubious. I asked several more times, via phone and email, for an explanation. To date, I still have not received one. Note: At Prentice’s request, I have redacted his and Formas’ gmail addresses and Prentice’s phone number from the documents. I removed this information, which is public (and disclosable), as a courtesy.

Support

Kamb’s story made me realize that I wasn’t the first reporter who had been stonewalled by the mayor’s office on a records request (although his, which concerned private negotiations about a matter of huge public interest, was obviously of more import than the mayor’s social media strategy.) It also made me wonder if, in addition to withholding records that were indisputably public, the mayor’s office had initially withheld any private emails from me. In 26 pages of emails the office eventually provided me last month, there was one such email—sent from Prentice’s Gmail and forwarded to his official account, apparently for record-keeping purposes. However, it’s impossible to know whether more such private emails exist. All I can say for certain is that the mayor’s office didn’t provide any.

This is true in general, too: I have no way of knowing if the mayor’s office actually provided all the outgoing emails that I requested, including the ones from official addresses. (I do know that they did not provide the bcc lists I requested for the emails they did send, because none of the additional emails includes any information about who they went out to. To that extent, at least, the mayor’s office still has not fulfilled my request.) This is a problem that extends beyond me, and beyond this specific request. I happened to already have some of the emails I should have been provided at the very beginning, which is how I knew the mayor’s office had closed my request without handing over what I asked for. What if I hadn’t? What if I had just accepted that the one email they provided, along with the list of recipients, was the only document that was responsive to my request? What if I had been an ordinary citizen rather than a reporter with decades of experience filing public disclosure requests? What if I had had every resource, including a team of attorneys and supportive editors, and the mayor’s office just didn’t hand them over? That’s the situation the Times was in, and, in a way, still is. Durkan’s office has admitted no wrongdoing in their initial refusal to provide all the records Kamb requested, and still say that they provided the latest batch as a “courtesy,” not an obligation. This should concern anyone invested in transparency in local government, which is to say, everyone.

Mayoral staffers’ use of private emails is just a small part of the broader issues I described above, but it’s worth noting that mayoral staffers are hardly the only city employees doing city-related business with private email accounts.  As I have reported, city council member Kshama Sawant and her staff routinely use private Gmail accounts (both custom “[firstname]atcouncil@gmail.com” accounts and their own personal emails) to conduct city business, such as the recent “Save the Showbox” legislation. Because city public disclosure officers can’t access city employees’ private email accounts directly, any disclosure of private emails happens, essentially, on the honor system. It doesn’t require any particular paranoia to believe that public officials sometimes use private emails (or Facebook messages, or encrypted, message-erasing apps like Signal) to skirt disclosure laws. All you have to do is look back to the time when elected officials in Seattle first started to use text messages, but never turned them over in response to records requests, citing the technological difficulty of finding messages they had deleted. Or, for that matter, to the existing practices of the current mayor’s office.

Morning Crank: In a Timely Manner

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1. In yesterday’s Morning Crank, I reported that the city lacks some basic information that would help it evaluate its progress on “Vision Zero”—the Seattle Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate serious injuries and deaths due to traffic collisions by 2030. The city’s annual traffic report, which includes detailed information on traffic injuries and death, hasn’t been updated since 2015. That means the most recent stats on cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths available to the public date back to 2014—before many of the policies in Vision Zero were even implemented.

Yesterday, SDOT responded to my request for some basic facts about the people killed or injured by traffic incidents in the past two years, including specific information about pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths. The numbers suggest that while Seattle is still much safer for pedestrians and cyclists than most other big cities, we’ve made only minimal progress toward reducing the number of people killed or injured in traffic, and that bicyclist and pedestrian deaths have stayed stable or inched up since the most recent traffic report.

According to the information provided by SDOT, there were 212 collisions that resulted in serious injuries or death in 2015 and 206 in 2016, compared to 186 in 2014.  Seven people walking and one cyclist were killed in crashes in 2015; in 2016, those numbers were six and three, respectively. Both years represent an increase over 2014, when six pedestrians and one cyclist were killed by vehicles.

These numbers would seem to confirm the concerns council member Mike O’Brien raised last month, when he noted that Seattle should be “a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.” In a conversation Monday, O’Brien expressed frustration with the slow drip of traffic information from SDOT; two pedestrians who were killed by drivers in January, he noted, won’t even show up in SDOT’s numbers for another two years.

At a briefing on Vision Zero yesterday, SDOT staffer Darby Watson told the council’s transportation committee that the reason it takes so long for SDOT to release its annual traffic report is that the stats come from the Seattle Police Department’s Traffic Collision Investigation Squad, which “write[s] up a very detailed report that tells us everything about [each] collision. … And there’s a limited number of people that they’re willing to share it with, so it’s sometimes difficult to get those reports in a timely manner.” O’Brien responded, “I’m sure the police department has very good reasons for the thoroughness of their data,” but asked Watson to come back with recommendations for getting basic collision statistics to the city in a more timely manner.

2. A bill in the state legislature that would bar Seattle and King County from opening several planned supervised drug-consumption sites (rebranded last year as Community Health Engagement Locations, or CHELs) appears to be dead. The bill, sponsored by Federal Way Republican Mark Miloscia, came in response to a county opiate addiction task force recommendation for two safe-consumption sites, one in Seattle and one elsewhere in King County.

3. One of the democratizing things about the move to electronic records among state and local government agencies is that reporters and citizens no longer have to pay photocopying charges to access public records. (Another benefit is that electronic records don’t kill trees). Electronic copies are generally available for free or at a nominal charge, making information accessible to those of us without company credit cards or expense account.

But two bills in the state legislature, which passed out of the House on Friday and are now in the Senate’s state government committee, would increase the cost of electronic records and put information off-limits for those who can’t afford to pay the new charges. The proposed legislation would allow agencies such as the Seattle Police Department to charge up to ten cents per minute for audio and video files, and would allow “customized service charges” for “exceptionally large requests” that require extra staff time or expertise. Electronic scans would cost up to 10 cents a page, which is comparable to what many agencies currently charge for paper records.

The bills also gives agencies the power to deny requests from bots designed to file multiple requests per day, and would allow agencies to force requesters into potentially costly mediation to settle disputes over requests.

4. Mayor Ed Murray plans to reveal the details of his $55 million ballot measure for homelessness services and housing today at 1pm. Supporters plan to qualify the measure for the ballot by gathering signatures, rather than submitting the proposal to the city council, which would almost certainly tinker with the proposal.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Fan Mail, Public Disclosure, and Conspiracy Theories

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A few weeks back, two people filed  public disclosure requests seeking all the emails I’ve sent to city council members—in one case, going back many years, and in the other, going back forever. (I’ve redacted the names and contact information from the requests). One of the requesters seemed to be hoping to blow the lid off some conspiracy between me, the council, and homeless advocate Alison Eisinger related to homeless encampments; the other seemed obsessed with a story I wrote about misogyny directed at female city council members over the arena deal last summer, in which I mis-identified the date and context in which two talk radio hosts gave out council member Sally Bagshaw’s phone number, and also wanted copies of every email in which any council member or council staffer had ever mentioned my name or the name of this blog.

That, as I said on Facebook at the time, is unusual! I’m a private citizen, and it isn’t common for people to go on witch hunts for journalists’ emails, but it happens. (Pro tip, though: If you’re going to go hunting for conspiracy theories, narrow them down so it won’t take the city 15 years to produce all your documents!) Around the same time, another individual had taken it upon herself to call my employers, potential employers, past employers, and even other media outlets where I’d merely appeared as a guest, in an effort to make it hard for me to get work or do public appearances. (I’ve seen a lot of these emails and they typically describe me as irresponsible, not a real journalist, unethical, and motivated by some kind of vague, nefarious hostility—basically the email equivalent of the comments I was getting on Slog back in 2007.) The person was also upset about my views on homelessness, and lives in the same North End neighborhood as the two records requesters.

I’ve struggled for a long time with what to do about harassers. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, I don’t like the attention, and I certainly don’t understand why people form negative obsessions about people they don’t know. I’ve blocked a few people on social media, including one person who created a dozen or more new Facebook profiles every day (you know, Facebook – the place where you can’t hide behind fake names?) to get around my blocks. I briefly blocked another person who sent me nearly 100 increasingly threatening private messages in a few hours one weekend afternoon. Typically, I unblock these people once they’ve simmered down, because I try to be an open book; only a few have concerned me enough to talk to a lawyer or law enforcement.

I’ve been living my life online for a long time, and I’ve been the subject of online abuse for just as long. But I have seen a shift recently, not in the level of anger, personal vitriol, and gendered name-calling (the very name of this blog is in part a response to people’s incredibly clever comments about knowing what my middle initial stands for) but in the prevalence of conspiracy theories, as if the city, journalists, and advocates (especially homeless advocates) were somehow colluding to destroy Seattle to make themselves rich at everybody else’s expense. You see this on Nextdoor, certainly. But you also see it in emails to council members—like the one below, which was sent to all nine council members by one of the women who filed records requests for my emails.

Which reminds me of another pro tip: Public disclosure law applies to everyone.

From: [REDACTED]

Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 11:49 AM
To: Herbold, Lisa <Lisa.Herbold@seattle.gov>; Bagshaw, Sally <Sally.Bagshaw@seattle.gov>; Sawant, Kshama <Kshama.Sawant@seattle.gov>; Harrell, Bruce <Bruce.Harrell@seattle.gov>; Juarez, Debora <Debora.Juarez@seattle.gov>; Gonzalez, Lorena <Lorena.Gonzalez@seattle.gov>; O’Brien, Mike <Mike.OBrien@seattle.gov>; Johnson, Rob <Rob.Johnson@seattle.gov>; tim.burgress@seattle.gov
Subject: NORTH PRECINCT

 

Seattle City Council Members:  Dec 13,2016

It is my understanding the N Precinct has lost all funding for a new building. It is clear per your FB Ms Sawant that you truly don’t give a FUCK about law enforcement! And before the rest of the CMs take issue with my language this is your co council members words per a quote she referred to recently from an article about not giving 13 FUCKS as a grown women!

I find the lack of leadership within this council to be appalling and harmful!  You stand for nothing and cave to everything. You continually glorify in constantly appointing people to different committees or positions. Yet when it comes to THE SEATTLE POLICE DEPT policy decisions you are ineffective!

You are elected officials you were elected to form policy that serve and protect ALL PEOPLE of the city and you are failing!

Your lack of leadership regarding law and order in our city is in my opinion criminal!  The NORTH END is the LARGEST area to be covered yet has the least amount of officers working out of a building that NONE OF YOU would ever work out of. You sit in the glass palace of downtown doing what regarding public safety ? Evidently not much as crime is going up!  Tax paying citizens of this city deserve way better then what any of you are doing.

If your agenda is to make this city a living shithole then you are doing a great job just look around. It is a matter of time folks before the National Guard is called in and I am not joking!

I personally think the FBI needs to get involved and soon, as it appears a money making racket out of the homeless situation is occurring.

When you  have $100s of millions of dollars leaving this city into the hands of providers who are not held accountable. There is no transparency. And yet the homeless numbers are increasing!  A federal investigation is needed to weed thru this mess you all have created.

In addition if  you all had done a better job accounting for past spending maybe the Feds would have recognized the City of Seattle state of emergency regarding homelessness over a year ago! The way you spend money with no accountability its not surprise  the FEDS are looking the other way. You don’t spend wisely to begin with why give you more?!

In closing you should know that I do live in the North End and I can guarantee you that if I call 911 and do not receive a response in a timely manner   and it leads  to anyone in my family being harmed this city will see a lawsuit the likes they have never seen. THE OFFICER SHORTAGE, THE LACK OF PROPER TRAINING FACILITIES and having laws on the books that officers are told to not enforce  are what is  causing a  rapid decay in this city and you all policy makers are on the hook. Its called DUE PROCESS !

 

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Will Open-Records Gadfly’s 6,000 Requests Shed Sunlight on City Government, or Slam the Shutters?

If you’ve heard of Tim Clemans, you probably know him as a transparency watchdog, the guy who pointed out so many problems with the Seattle Police Department’s record-keeping and disclosure system that SPD eventually hired him to help them bring them out of the 20th century, only to cut him  loose when his efforts to streamline their antiquated systems pissed off some higher-ups at the hidebound and historically secretive department.

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Image via Tim Clemans’ Facebook page.

What you may not know is that he’s an increasingly prickly thorn in the side of not just SPD–of which he filed thousands of requests at the tail end of last year–but departments throughout the city as well dozens of smaller cities around the state. In a letter to Clemans in November, an exasperated city attorney Pete Holmes said fulfilling the disclosure crusader’s demands would be a “monumental, if not impossible task” that would be “futile and absurd” for the city to take on.

Clemans, a reclusive young programmer who lives with his mom and hasn’t had a job since he was let go by the city last October, came to prominence last year in a series of admiring reports by the Stranger, which praised his barrage of requests for dashcam videos as a high-minded crusade for transparency in government and at SPD, which is under a federal consent decree after allegations of racially biased policing and excess force, in particular.

When SPD hired Clemans,  national media echoed the Stranger’s praise for “the brilliant, award-winning, self-taught programmer,” calling Clemans a “hero hacker” (Gizmodo) undertaking a quixotic but “ambitious” effort to improve transparency in local government (Wired) only to be thwarted when an irritated police captain “felt [Clemans’ work] usurped his power” (Engadget).

And Clemans’ work was certainly ambitious–and promising. In his brief time at SPD, Clemans created a program that allowed citizens to view blurred-out images of police-car dashcam footage on Youtube; previously, SPD had had to watch videos frame by frame to redact personal information. (Clemans also planned to work on creating an auto-redaction program for police reports.) He resigned after clashing with department higher-ups over a program he created to triage 911 calls, which he says SPD wouldn’t allow to move forward despite the fact that prioritizing calls in order of urgency would save lives.

As Clemans described the situation to me in an interview in December, “on visit number two [to the 911 dispatch center], I just started solving problems,” chief among them how to prioritize calls and identify repeat callers. “I fundamentally believe that [SPD] is putting people’s lives in danger” by not adopting the software he created, Clemans says.

It didn’t take long for Clemans to get his revenge. Right before he left, Clemans says, he told his SPD bosses, “I’m going to PDR the shit out of you,” and he did, filing hundreds of requests for SPD dashcam footage and 911 call recordings almost as soon as he walked out the door.

His campaign made Clemans a hero to a certain type of government-wary technophile (male tech reporters, for whatever reason, seem particularly enamored of Clemans and his exploits). But what the glowing articles, replete with exclamation points punctuating Clemens’ achievements (the Stranger reported reported that Clemans posted the dash-cam “on his YouTube account, of course!” ) glossed over was that, according to multiple city officials, Clemans’ barrage of requests threatened to grind the gears of public disclosure to a halt.

This is due, in part, to the fact that the city’s public disclosure systems are not equipped to deal with massive requests for electronic data–one problem Clemans is trying to highlight. (At one point, as I reported in 2003 and again in 2010, many city offices did not even retain emails past 45 days, and the city’s retention and disclosure systems are still largely outdated and inconsistent from department to department.) From 2011 to 2015, according to a report submitted by the city attorney’s office to the city auditor, the total number of public records requests increased by 64 percent, while the number of requestors decreased 5.5 percent, meaning that a smaller number of people was asking for more information more frequently. “The serial requestors’ raw contribution over the past four years was nearly 5,400 requests, requiring 11,000 hours of public disclosure officer (PDO) time at a cost of at least $470,000 to fulfill,” the report concludes.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.23.16 PMAnd the requests Clemans filed, and continues to file, are truly massive–so vast and broad,  in fact, that many officials at the local and state levels believe they are impossible to fill, using current staffing and technology, within the span of a human lifetime. Those include  a request for “all records”–that is, every piece of documentation of any kind–the city of Seattle has ever produced.

In a letter dated December 7, 2015, city attorney Pete Holmes said he was denying Clemans’ request because the records he was seeking were not “identifiable,” which is another way of saying the request was too broad as well as “difficult, if not impossible” to fill.

“You have not defined your request by topic, timeframe, custodian, or any other identifier that would provide a meaningful description helpful for City staff charged with finding the record,” Holmes wrote. “Instead, you simply demand that the City sift through every one of the millions of records that may exist anywhere in City offices, storage sites, computer systems, City and personal telephones and personal devices, and any other potential records source in order to provide you anything that might conceivably constitute a public record along with its associated metadata. Accordingly, because your request is not a request for an ‘identifiable public record,’ the City is not obligated to respond.

“Setting aside all legal concerns, logistically, it would take the City hundreds of years to process your request and you could not inspect the responsive records in your lifetime.”

(Attorney General Bob Ferguson denied a similar request Clemans made for every email ever sent or received by state employees, which Ferguson estimated would include about 600 million emails, on similar grounds last February).

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.22.50 PMThe city can’t dismiss more specific requests so easily. According to Deputy City Attorney John Schochet, whose office ultimately determines which requests are valid,  Clemans had filed more than 300 public records requests at the city as of the end of December. Those alone, Schochet said, were “creating a huge amount of labor and impacting our ability to respond to other public records requests.” After we spoke, Clemans (with some help from computerized bots) filed thousands more requests with SPD,  announcing his intention in a tweet on December 21: “10K PDRs just started going out. Merry Christmas and have very happy TRANSPARENT new year.” Between October and late December 2015, SPD records show, Clemans filed 6,370 requests–5,972 of them on December 22.

According to a spreadsheet produced by Schochet, Clemans’ initial 300 requests included requests for 911 call records as well as all emails to, from, or about Clemans, “all thank you messages and praises for any employee,” “Photos of Kurt Cobain’s body,” and photos of all SPD employees. Explaining the former request, Clemans says, “It’s really disturbing to me that I can’t even really see who works for the city. These people are paid by the taxpayers, and I don’t even know what they look like.” As for the Cobain images (which he has not received), Clemans says that if photos showing the gunshots were public, “this whole conspiracy crap [the theory that Cobain was never shot] could be put to bed.”

Although Clemans says “I really do want the records,” he’s also trying to make a larger point about the need for greater (in his opinion, vastly greater) transparency and responsiveness from government agencies. Ultimately, Clemans argues, the city needs to move toward a direct-release system, in which all disclosable records would be public essentially as soon as they’re created. (Currently, the state Public Disclosure Act requires people to file requests for records and wait for a response.) Once the records were available, Clemans says, they could be organized and “auto-correlated,” so that “people [could] say, ‘I want to be notified whenever City Hall is talking about an issue that I care about.’ … [With] the documents alone, if they’re not turned into structured data, it’s really difficult to do anything,” Clemans says.

And, he adds, research (including a 12-month randomized trial in 2014) has shown that transparency–such as the presence of body cameras on police–changes behavior. “I firmly believe that people make vastly better decisions when the decisions they make and why they make them is on the Internet,” Clemans says.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.30.00 PMParadoxically, though, all these requests for public information may actually be putting a damper on disclosure. Because the requests Clemans makes are so broad and result in so much additional work for public disclosure officers, they’ve directly inhibited the city’s ability to respond to other requests. (In fact, I found out about Clemans’ latest batch of requests because a request I made, for an unrelated story, got delayed because, in one city disclosure officer’s words, the “City is being inundated with very large requests” that make it difficult to respond to routine requests from citizens, like “what’s going on with the sewer line in front of my house?” and journalists.)

Clemans says outdated technology and staffing shortfalls are no excuse for slow disclosure. “As far as I’m concerned, all these agencies have known for a long time that this could happen at any moment,” he says. “The effect of this is that agencies are going to think a lot harder” about what is and isn’t subject to public disclosure, he says. 

Clemans isn’t limiting his crusade to big cities with many public disclosure officers and large legal departments like Seattle; he made similar requests to all 39 cities in King County, including tiny municipalities like Algona, population 5,513, that don’t employ even one public disclosure officer. Last month, dozens of cities across the state participated in a conference call, convened by the Association of Washington Cities, to discuss how to handle the barrage of requests.

“At my office, we have three staffers to perform all the functions of the city clerk’s office,” says Redmond City Clerk Michele Hart. “We don’t have a records division to speak of. … I don’t personally see that the (public records) law accounted for the fact that we have email today and that someone can come in and make one request that has 7,000 emails in it. Each of those records has to be reviewed by a person to make sure there’s nothing that’s being released” that shouldn’t be, she continues. “It’s a very complicated level of work that requires a lot of attention.”

Kirkland City Clerk Kathi Anderson, who has also been inundated with requests from Clemans, says that as an open-government advocate, she wants to provide records as quickly as possible. But, she adds, some of Clemans’ broader requests could take a decade or more to fulfill unless the city hires (and funds) more staff to deal with them.  “If we have a complex request, it just means that we’re going to take a long, long time,” Anderson says. “If the council decided that it’s going to take us decades and they believe it should only take us five years, they would have to allot more of the budget to provide the staffing to do that.”

Clemans dismisses concerns that the state will respond to requests from him and other “serial requesters” by tightening public-disclosure law. “That’s going to be a tough sell. They tried to do that last year with the body cams”–proposed legislation would have made it more difficult for record-seekers, including journalists, to access bodycam video footage–and it didn’t go anywhere. The agencies would have to show that they really came close to bankruptcy” before the legislature would take on such a losing political battle again, Clemans predicts.

In the meantime, by its own estimates, the city has hundreds of hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time, to spend responding just to the requests Clemans has already filed.