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Emails from mayors, accident reports, bodycam footage and thank-you letters from firefighters: public records tell a wide range of stories

Ask for the minutes of virtually any city and you’ll find reporters looking for stories: mayoral parking tickets in Spokane, municipal court success rates in Vancouver, illegal tree cutting in Tacoma, and rumors of secret tunnels in Boise.

In InvestigateWest’s case, our requests focused on the public records process itself. First, we asked 15 cities for their log of public records requests between November 2022 and November 2023. Then we asked for all communications involving either the mayor or the city administrator or manager from one week in October.

We found that there was a lot of variation across cities in terms of speed, cost, and completeness. But the content of the records themselves told a story about the wide range of how people use public records and what they can learn from them.

A thousand little questions

Of course there were many inquiries from the media. A reporter from the Daily Dot was looking for information on e-bike fires. A reporter from the Seattle Times asked for data on homeless encampment clearances over the past three weeks. A reporter from VICE Media wanted national data on the huge increase in Kia and Hyundai car thefts.

Text message exchanges with Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli show how public officials navigated a week that included racist comments at public meetings, a train derailment, a bridge accident, accusations of racial bias and the aftermath of the attack on Israel. (Graphic by Daniel Walters/InvestigateWest)

But media inquiries were only a tiny fraction of the total – far outnumbered by requests from insurance companies, lawyers, big data aggregators, real estate investors and other citizens. Tens of thousands of the requests cities received were simply for reports of vehicle collisions. Others showed real estate investors seeking listings of properties with vacant homes, fire-damaged buildings, overgrown grass, broken sidewalks and unpaid taxes.

Add dozens of academics and researchers. Inquiries came from a graduate student studying gifts Seattle gave to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a College of Idaho student studying racist housing restrictions, and a former police officer compiling data on five years of police tracking.

There were private detectives, environmental inspectors and criminal defense lawyers. Two months before Kelee Ringo, a Tacoma-raised football player, was drafted as a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles, a man who described himself as a “licensed professional investigator” who worked for “several professional sports organizations” requested all police records, including juvenile records, in which Ringo might be involved.

True crime TV shows with titles like “Almost Unsolved” and “See No Evil”, wanted body camera footage ranging from a homeless encampment to police officers “stung by a swarm of wasps” in Seattle.

Prada Portland PDX, a left-wing activist collective, has made a number of records requests to the Portland Police Bureau. A right-wing lawyer In preparing a religious discrimination lawsuit against the Spokane City Council, they requested “all written records of all City Council members on the subject of Christianity.”

Other requests read like sad – or heartwarming – one-sentence storiesIn Spokane, a mother said she called the fire department because the door to her AirBnb accommodation was stuck and she had to rescue her children through the window.

“I need this documentation of the incident to show to my ex-husband’s attorney as he is accusing me of dropping my children off late for school that day,” she wrote.

In Boise Winston Moore, a nearly 100-year-old former real estate developer from Boisealso wanted the fire department’s records. Last year, in the early hours of November 7, Moore had fallen and his family was unable to help him up.

“Some wonderful firefighters came and helped me get up off the ground and made sure I was OK,” Moore wrote in his request. “I would like to know which fire station came to send them a thank you.”

Only one week

Each records request can reveal a whole host of other issues worth investigating.

When we asked for a weekly sample of emails from mayors and administrative officials across the region, we chose the period from October 7 to 14, the week after Hamas’ attacks in Israel.

Text messages show Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway mocking another mayor’s presentation during the 2023 League of Oregon Cities conference. (Graphic by Daniel Walters/InvestigateWest)

In a series of emails, Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis wrote enthusiastically argued that while the city was “not designed to light up City Hall in the colors of Israel, we could fly the Israeli flag in solidarity.” The city manager was cautious, noting that Bellevue’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer believes the city should “steer clear” of the issue.

Sometimes the details contained in the records were mundane or personal: The mayor of Portland rebuilt his dishwasher. The mayor of Vancouver was torn between eating pizza or a burrito for dinner. The mayor of Bellevue was terrified of earthquakes as a child in California and abruptly left an event to return home after the October 9 earthquake.

Many of the recordings revealed the frustration of employeesIn Hillsboro, the fire department was embroiled in a dispute over a firefighters’ union grievance, while the municipal court suffered from staff shortages and burnout.

In Idaho Falls, an airport employee appealed to the mayor to say that the “work environment at the airport is becoming more toxic by the day.” He said that “the time given to Human Resources to conduct a thorough investigation was respected, but we continue to seek accountability and action.”

The Idaho Falls Police Chief reported When a police officer pricked himself with a used syringe, he was initially told he would have to pay $4,500 out of pocket for medication to treat the injury, stressing that “our workers’ compensation insurance is notorious for not reimbursing in a timely manner.” The Idaho Falls chief of staff countered that the problem was that the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center did not have the medication and thanked the city for making calls to resolve the issue.

In Tacoma, members of the Queer City Collective A group of LGBTQ city employees were frustrated that the city posted about National Coming Out Day on Facebook against their express wishes. A previous post during Pride Month had attracted “hateful comments,” one employee said, and free speech rules prohibited the city from moderating it.

Portland Chief of Staff Bobby Lee sent a text message saying that the “quality of life in downtown Portland is declining.” He also texted the county’s director of occupational safety regarding his report that the Portland mayor’s car had been “scratched” outside the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Resource Center.

On the flight home: Vancouver Mayor Anna McEterny-Ogle responded quickly to reports that the county health officer was cracking down on donated food being used in homeless shelters. McEerny feared that requiring people to prepare donated food in a commercial kitchen would ruin food programs, while the health officer worried that homeless people were particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness. They agreed to a compromise: commercial kitchens should not be required, but food-handling permits for volunteer cooks should be strongly encouraged.

There were a few moments of pettiness. The mayor of Hillsboro spent part of the League of Oregon Cities She badmouthed other cities at the conference and mocked a fellow mayor’s speech in text messages to a Hillsboro city council member, adding, “I’m so glad I’m standing behind the podium so she can’t see me texting.”

Finally, the recordings showed some moments – amid emails from angry voters and exhausted staff where the city leaders receive warm praise.

A voicemail message was left for Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper expressing her deep gratitude that the city has finally installed the acoustic crossing she has been requesting for years – a crosswalk that allows blind people to cross the street safely.

“My husband died in May. Without this help, I would have been completely housebound,” the woman said. “It took three mayors to get this done, and you were the first to step in.”

We have published all the records we have received Here.

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Daniel Walters, a Report for America corps member, covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at (email protected).

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Daniel Walters – InvestigateWest