Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison is doing a superb job. But she’s falling woefully behind on office transparency.
Unlike her predecessor Pete Holmes, Davison actually leads with compassion. She diverts the right kind of criminals to get the help they need while understanding her office must have compassion for victims, too. That means jail time for dangerous criminals.
Davison cut the median decision time on whether or not to charge by 98 percent, resulting in a 124 percent increase in cases filed. Holmes, for his part, did what he could to keep criminals out of jail. It’s actually quite difficult to figure out how he and the attornies who reported to him spent their days.
But transparency is taking a back seat.
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Transparency taking a back seat
There’s little doubt Davison is actually working. But when it comes to her office fulfilling straightforward public disclosure requests, she’s dropping the ball. And her communications team is as bad as Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office. They don’t really offer a key component of their job: communication.
Public disclosure requests, or PDRs, allow members of the public to gain access to documents, emails, court records, surveillance footage, and so much more. PDRs are an effective tool to uncover stories, and ultimately, keep public officials and workers accountable.
But Davison’s office is understaffing her public disclosure unit, which is responsible for fulfilling PDRs. And it means requests take months to complete, even when they appear to be relatively simple.
Sometimes, to give the appearance that requests are being fulfilled within a reasonable amount of time, they’re sent in installations. Most troublesome, when requests are partially delivered, they appear to be done with the intention of withholding what you’re most interested in seeing until the final installation is complete.
As bad, her communications team doesn’t help fill the gaps when they can.
Davison stays silent on transparency concerns
It’s unclear how many staff members work on fulfilling these crucial requests in the Seattle City Attorney’s office. Davison’s office won’t answer basic questions on staffing.
Davison won’t respond to concerns about her office’s transparency. Three requests for comment were completely ignored. Unfortunately, this is par for the course. And it’s wholly unacceptable.
Oftentimes, Davison’s communications team drags its feet in responding. You’re forced to nudge for comments or information that they’re paid to provide.
They may have little respect for journalists’ work. Perhaps she now has little interest in a conservative outlet after it was used to help rally conservative or moderate and independent voters after the general election. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
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This is not a unique problem
Often times, communications staff function as a publicist for their politician client when, in reality, they work for the taxpayer. Their job is to disseminate information that we have the right to access, not just what makes their boss look good.
To be clear, this problem isn’t unique to Davison.
Mayor Harrell’s communications director, Jamie Housen, is notoriously silent when asked questions he knows will not be politically beneficial to answer. He simply won’t respond, not even willing to offer the courtesy of saying “no comment.”
Sometimes they may think ignoring reasonable questions from certain outlets — like KTTH Radio — means the story won’t generate any momentum. How’s that strategy working for you? It shows how little regard the office has for the media. But when they don’t like certain coverage or framing, he’s quick to reach out.
This was the same reality under former Mayor Jenny Durkan. It should come as a little surprise that Durkan’s communications spokesperson Anthony Derrick now heads the communications office for Davison.
Ironically, under former city attorney Holmes, the communications department was easier to work with on basic requests.
Out of fairness
I contemplated not writing this criticism because I respect her performance.
Davison is a Republican and it’s the first time in decades we’ve seen one elected to citywide office. Her strategy is to put her head down and do the work without calling attention to her politics. It’s her biggest vulnerability as a politician in Seattle even though her personal politics don’t shape how she runs her office.
But I criticize Democrat politicians for a lack of transparency. I call out the Seattle Police Department for being woefully and inexcusably slow when it comes to providing information to the media and public via disclosure requests. Why should I hold back on Davison’s office? Sharing similar politics or being overwhelmingly pleased with her performance isn’t a good enough reason to hold back criticism on an important issue.
I certainly understand Davison’s strategy of staying out of the limelight and letting her performance speak for itself. Politically, in Seattle, it’s smart. But her strategy is her problem — not mine.
Transparency is important. Ignoring media requests and putting too few resources into fulfilling public disclosure requests, especially those made in good faith, isn’t merely disrespectful to the journalist asking questions. It’s disrespectful to the public we’re serving.
Listen to the Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.