The C Is for Crank has appealed a decision by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Human Services Department to heavily redact records related to a planned safe parking lot for people living in their cars. The city had planned to open a safe lot as a “pilot project” in Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. After Mount Baker neighborhood activist (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami and other South End residents became aware of the plans in late January, however, Durkan intervened, announcing in an email to community members and the media that she had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27 and that she was sending the plan back to the drawing board for further evaluation.
The city redacted the documents on the grounds that the redacted information relates to the “deliberative process” for deciding whether and where to locate such a lot.
The deliberative process exemption to the state public records act, also known as “exemption 2,” allows cities to black out records when they relate to “Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended, except that a specific record shall not be exempt when publicly cited by an agency in connection with an agency action.”
The exemption only applies to discussions that involve setting policy (e.g., whether the city should create safe parking lots where people living in their cars to sleep); it does not, according to the state Open Government Resource Manual, apply to the implementation of policy or to “matters that are factual, or that are assumed to be factual for discussion purposes.” Additionally, cities can’t withhold information about a decision-making process once that decision has been made. In general, cities are directed to interpret the public records act as liberally as possible in the interest of disclosure.
The information Durkan’s Human Services Department has redacted for being related to ongoing policy deliberations and exchanges of opinion about policy decisions includes:
• The location of the city’s preferred site for a safe parking site, which the city has already acknowledged was Genesee Park. This location is blacked out in several places throughout the documents the city provided, including in a list of “Key Audiences and Stakeholders” that places Murakami at the very top of the list;
• Most of the details of a communications and outreach plan for the pilot;
• The responses to a list of FAQs from the community, which presumably consist of the factual information, along with some of the frequently asked questions themselves;
• An “about the pilot” list of bullet points (above) that presumably included much the same information HSD made public in an email to community members and local media back in February, which stated that the pilot “would serve no more than 30 vehicles, not RVs… open this spring and run through the end of the 2019… be overnight only, with no permanent infrastructure on the property, and offe[r] a safe place to stay overnight and a connection to a place to shower and use the restroom” as well as “services and case management to participants to assist in finding permanent housing.”
• Every media outlet on a list of “specific media targets” as well as every community member or group on list of “specific community outreach targets”;
• The entire timeline for doing outreach to the community and eventually opening the lot;
• Every item on a list of “Tactics” as well as every item on a list of “Communications and Outreach Assets”; and
• Finally, the entire outreach timeline for the Genesee Park safe-lot proposal, all of which is, it is safe to assume, in the past.
The redactions include the location of a planned community meeting as well as details about the pilot that HSD officials have discussed in some detail, including at that same public meeting. (Note: The mayor’s office clarified that the meeting the redacted documents referred to was not a community meeting that received widespread coverage, but a different planned meeting. They did not respond to questions about that meeting or any other meetings with community members that, according to unredacted internal emails between city officials, were planned for March, including questions about whether any of those meetings ever actually occurred.)
HSD directed questions about the redactions to the mayor’s office, which has not responded to a list of questions sent on Monday.
According to a city public disclosure officer, the mayor’s office may claim that because the city hasn’t decided on when, whether, or where to open a safe parking lot, the “deliberations” about the overall issue are technically still ongoing—an interpretation that could allow the city to exempt from disclosure, in perpetuity, any documents related to decisions they decided not to make, actions they never took, or policies they just left hanging. If the city just decides to never open a safe lot at all—which is basically what’s happening with a proposed mobile safe injection site, and there are plenty of other precedents—will that make every document related to that non-decision forever nondisclosable, existing in a permanent limbo of black lines and “Exemption No. 2″s? It seems ridiculous—but maybe.
For now, I’m waiting to hear back from the city on my appeal, and will decide whether to take further action at that point.
If you’re wondering, by the way, what’s going on with the proposal for a safe lot, which was originally supposed to open on January 1 and was pushed back several times before the plans for the Genesee Park location were scuttled, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding provided this response to a detailed list of questions about the pilot:
“The Mayor has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City. The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun. We are moving it along, but have no precise timeline.”
I hope to have another update on this story later today.