A few of the other stories we stumbled across while testing the Pacific Northwest’s records’ systems 

By Daniel Walters / InvestigateWest

Ask for the records log of pretty much any city and you’ll find reporters looking for stories: mayoral parking tickets in Spokane, community court success rates in Vancouver, illegal tree cuttings in Tacoma, and rumors of secret tunnels in Boise. 

In InvestigateWest’s case, our requests were 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 a week in October.

We found a wide disparity in speed, cost and completeness between cities. But the content of the records themselves told a story about the vast range of the ways people use public records and what they can learn from them. 

A THOUSAND LITTLE QUESTIONS 

There were plenty of media requests of course. A Daily Dot reporter sought information on eBike fires. A Seattle Times reporter asked for three weeks of data about clearing homeless encampments. A VICE Media reporter wanted national data on the huge spike of Kia and Hyundai car thefts. 

Text message exchanges with Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli show public officials dealing with a week that included racist public meeting comments, a train derailment, a bridge collision, racial bias accusations, and the aftermath of the attack on Israel. (Daniel Walters graphic/InvestigateWest)

Yet media requests were only a minuscule fraction of the total number — dwarfed by requests from insurance companies, attorneys, big data aggregators, real estate investors and other members of the public. Tens of thousands of the requests cities received were simply for vehicle collision reports. Others showed real estate investors seeking lists of properties with vacant houses, fire-damaged structures, overgrown grass, broken sidewalks and unpaid taxes.

Add scores of academics and researchers. Requests came from a Ph.D. student researching the gifts Seattle gave to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a College of Idaho student digging into racist housing restrictions, and an ex-police officer building data on five years of police pursuits.

There were private eyes, environmental site inspectors and defense attorneys. Two months before Kelee Ringo, a football player who grew up in Tacoma, was drafted as a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles, someone calling himself a “licensed professional investigator” working for “several professional sports organizations,” asked for all police records, including juvenile records, that may have involved Ringo. 

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

Prada Portland PDX, a left-wing activist collective, made a slew of records requests into the Portland Police Bureau. A right-wing attorney preparing a religious discrimination lawsuit against the Spokane City Council asked for “all written records by any city council member about Christianity.”

Others requests read like sad — or heartwarming — one-sentence stories. In Spokane, a mother explained that she’d called the fire department because the door at her AirBnb was stuck and she had to get her kids out through the window.  

“I need this documented record of the incident to provide to my ex-husband’s attorney because he is accusing me of taking my children late to school that day,” she wrote. 

In Boise, Winston Moore, a nearly 100-year-old former Boise real estate developer, also wanted fire department records. Last year, in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, Moore had fallen and his family wasn’t able to help him up. 

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

JUST ONE WEEK 

Any records request can crack open a whole span of other issues worth investigating. 

When we asked for a week’s sampling of mayoral and administrator emails across the region, we chose Oct. 7-14, the week following the attacks in Israel by Hamas. 

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

In one set of emails, Bellevue’s Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis enthusiastically argued that, although the city was “not set up to light up City Hall in Israel colors, we could raise the Israeli flag,” in solidarity. The city manager was cautious, noting that Bellevue’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer thought the city should “stay away” from the issue. 

Sometimes the details the records provided were banal or personal: The Portland mayor rebuilt his dishwasher. The Vancouver mayor was torn between pizza or a burrito for dinner. The Bellevue mayor grew up terrified of earthquakes in California, so after the ground shook on Oct. 9, she abruptly left an event to return home. 

Many of the records revealed employee frustrations. In Hillsboro, the fire department was locked in a fight over a grievance from the fire department union, while their community court was reeling from understaffing and burnout. 

In Idaho Falls, an airport employee pleaded with the mayor that the airport’s “work environment day by day continues to grow more toxic” and that they “have been respectful of the time given to HR to conduct an in-depth investigation, but we still seek accountability and action.” 

The Idaho Falls police chief reported that after an officer was stuck with a used needle, he was initially told he had to pay $4,500 out of pocket for drugs to treat it, stressing that “our workman’s comp has a reputation earned for not reimbursing in a timely manner.” The Idaho Falls chief of staff countered that the problem was that Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center didn’t have the drugs, and credited the city with calling around to fix it.

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 “hate-filled comments,” one employee said, and free speech rules meant the city was legally restricted from moderating them.

Portland Chief of Staff Bobby Lee sent a text message that Portland’s “downtown livability is in decline.” He also texted with the county’s workplace security director about his report that the Portland mayor’s car had been “keyed” outside of Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Resource Center downtown. 

On a flight home, Vancouver Mayor Anna McEnerny-Ogle scrambled to react to reports that the county’s public health officer was cracking down on donated food at homeless shelters. McEnerny worried that requiring donated food to be cooked in a commercial kitchen would devastate food programs, while the health officer worried that homeless people were particularly vulnerable to foodborne illnesses. They struck a middle ground: Commercial kitchens wouldn’t be required, but food handler permits for volunteer cooks would be strongly encouraged. 

There were a few moments of pettiness. The Hillsboro mayor spent part of the League of Oregon Cities conference trash-talking other cities and mocking a fellow mayor’s speech in texts to a Hillsboro councilmember, adding, “I’m so glad I’m behind the podium so she can’t see me texting.”

Finally, the records showed a few moments — amid the emails from angry constituents and exhausted staff members where city leaders hear heartfelt praise.

A voicemail message was left for Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper expressing deep gratitude for the city finally installing the audible crossing — a crosswalk outfitted to allow blind people to safely cross — she’d been requesting for years. 

“My husband passed away in May. Without this I would have been totally housebound,” the woman said. “It took me three mayors to get it done and you’re the first one who jumped in.”

We’ve posted all the records we received here


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